Australia and ASEAN: constant interests, shifting obsessions
22 Aug 2016|

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Australia’s dealings with the ten nations of ASEAN are set by geography, flavoured by history, worked by diplomacy and driven by trade.

Throbbing always are the central concerns of power and strategy and defence.

The geography and the diplomacy and the power mean Southeast Asia must be a constant interest even if the terms of the obsessions change shape over time.

The interests and obsessions inject many layers into Australia’s interactions with ASEAN as the regional institution.

Not least in the continuous shape-shifting is the steady movement of weight, wealth and power in the ASEAN direction. Over the four decades of the official Australia–ASEAN relationship, relative power has flowed steadily to ASEAN.

Anyone thinking about Australia’s place in Asia has to have an ASEAN dimension. Thus, a definitive account of the Oz–ASEAN shape-shifts is a great tool.

Step forward the ever-reliable, ever-erudite Oz ASEANista, Frank Frost, with his new account (free download): ‘Engaging the neighbours: Australia and ASEAN since 1974’. This is diplomatic history of the highest calibre, written tight in only 200 pages.

While ASEAN launched in 1967, Frost traces the origins and evolution of Australia’s multilateral relations with ASEAN from 1974 when Australia became the first country to establish a multilateral link with the Association.

As he remarks of the Oz–ASEAN dance over the last decade, ‘closeness can produce partnership but can cause discord and contest.’

The deals and discords are done in detail: the Cambodia peace agreement (1991), the creation of the Asia­­–Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping (1989), the ASEAN Regional Forum (1994), the conclusion of the ASEAN–Australia–New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (2008), the development of the East Asia Summit (from 2005), and Kevin Rudd’s attempt to create an Asia–Pacific Community, which was kicked to death by ASEAN, with Singapore using the biggest boots.

Some words on Frank Frost, who is a friend. Frank served in the Parliamentary Library research branch in Canberra for 38 years from 1974 to 2012, with stints away at the University of Sydney and Griffith University and working for Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence.

The Parliamentary Library is one of the unsung treasures of the Australian Parliament, meeting the research and policy and speechifying needs of every MP and Senator. The Library is an invaluable servant of Australian democracy, and Frank was ever a servant of the Parliament. As a foreign policy gun-for-hire for politicians of any stripe, Frank Frost took the vow of academic rectitude.

He is scrupulous about his facts and even more scrupulous about his judgements. Over the decades, reading many of his draft publications, I developed a mantra: the facts are fine, Frank, but we need a bit more Frost!

There’s a saying in the press gallery that if you want to find the centre point on any controversial issue, just see what Michelle Grattan is columnising. Frank is the same—balanced, objective, meticulous.

As an example, here are the five factors Frost lists in his conclusion that will be of particular significance to Australia’s future dealings with ASEAN.

  1. ASEAN’s progress towards its declared goals for economic integration and security cooperation—the Community project—will be crucial.
  2. The climate and evolution of interactions among the major powers: ‘Increasing major power competition could undermine ASEAN’s capacity as a diplomatic actor.’
  3. Whether wider multilateral dialogues can make substantive contributions to cooperation and security in East Asia.
  4. The character and evolution of Australia’s interactions with ASEAN as an institution.
  5. The health and viability of Australia’s bilateral relationship with Indonesia.

Frost gently pours cold water on the idea that Australia should become a member of ASEAN—an idea this column has promoted in a number of Strategist posts.

He describes discussion of Australian membership in ASEAN as ‘interesting’ but ‘clearly in the realm of long-term speculatfion. Since there are a number of policy areas and institutional means through which closer Australian interests with ASEAN can be and are being pursued, an ongoing process of cooperation and closer coordination seemed for the foreseeable future the best path for Australia and its ASEAN partners to pursue.’

And there you have Frank Frost on ASEAN. An optimist, but ever a judicious optimist.