Australia as a full ASEAN Community partner
20 Feb 2018|

Ahead of the ASEAN–Australia summit in Sydney next month, ASPI today publishes my report Australia as an ASEAN Community partner. The report discusses how and why Australia should join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

We should aim for a form of ASEAN membership/partnership by 2024, the 50th anniversary of Australia becoming the first ASEAN dialogue nation. New Zealand should and would join any Australian effort to join ASEAN.

The ASEAN–Australia summit is the launch point for a discussion of what much closer cooperation could mean for the future of the ASEAN Community.

Alternative routes to membership could be used:

  • Half-in status by 2024, with Australia and New Zealand becoming ASEAN observers. This embraces the existing ASEAN system.

Or, what I’ve come to see as the better course:

  • The creation of a new form of ASEAN membership—embracing Australia and New Zealand as ASEAN Community partners. This avoids the geographical veto (for not being part of Southeast Asia) while acknowledging the value that Australia and New Zealand offer. As ASEAN Community partners, Australia and New Zealand would have full ASEAN rights and obligations.

Australia won’t have to give up deeply held beliefs about democracy and human rights to enter ASEAN. We can heartily embrace the values formally expressed in the ASEAN Community. On the march to community, ASEAN is seeking to remake its regionalism, and proclaimed norms are shifting. An Australia inside the ASEAN Community would help fellow members fulfil the Community’s foundation documents, especially the ‘ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Blueprint 2025’, which commits to an ASEAN that will ‘promote human and social development, respect for fundamental freedoms, gender equality, the promotion and protection of human rights and the promotion of social justice’.

There’s a big gap between the democratic promise of the Community’s aspiration and the current political reality in many ASEAN states. That democratic deficit, though, calls for Australia to get closer and work harder, not to hold back.

As geostrategic and geoeconomic pressures build in Asia, ASEAN, as a middle-power grouping, needs the extra heft offered by Australia and New Zealand.

Australia’s ASEAN membership wouldn’t affect our alliance with the US any more than formal alliances with the US have restricted the ASEAN roles of Thailand or the Philippines. Certainly, the quasi-alliance Singapore has created with America hasn’t altered Singapore’s ASEAN commitment.

Australia’s alliance would be an asset, not a hindrance, just as the US alliance was no barrier to Australia signing ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation to join the East Asia Summit. Nor do alliance and ASEAN ‘insidership’ prevent Australia from building ever-closer partnerships with Japan, South Korea, China and India—ASEAN has the same aspirations.

The Sydney meeting next month will need to launch two huge discussions on the how and why of Australian membership. The ten-member association will take a mountain of convincing. And Australia will have to make changes in how it think about and understands itself. The shift in Australian attitudes would be as significant as those within ASEAN.

The ultimate arguments won’t be about the geography of Southeast Asia; they’ll be about attitudes, understandings and beliefs, and the way Asia is changing.

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 that Southeast Asia must be a constant interest of Australia’s, even if the terms of Australia’s obsession change shape over time.

Those 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.

Joining ASEAN is the logical culmination of decades of Australian regional engagement. ASEAN membership would be an embrace of the region in the service of our deepest interests.

Membership of ASEAN and our alliance with the US and close partnerships across Asia are the endowment of a nation with its own continent, a country as much at home in the Indian Ocean as the Pacific Ocean. Australia must express its vast geography and multiple interests. In the 21st century, Australia must be all-in in Asia.

The all-in line asks for more than transactional competence and business-as-usual. Asia is shifting too fast: ASEAN membership is only one part of much that will confront Australia in our region(s). We will seek change, and be changed in turn.

ASEAN membership seems a long way off, but only if you ignore the distance Australia and ASEAN have travelled in the past 50 years. In the journey of convergence, the hardest miles are done and fading into memory. The greatest changes are things already changed—certainly in the makeup of Australia’s community and the way the nation thinks of itself.

Australia’s Asian future will be shaped by ASEAN’s success or failure. We have fundamental interests in ASEAN. If the ASEAN Community project is a success—in its social, political and strategic dimensions—Australia will want to be deeply involved in that vibrant community. Equally, Australia’s interests would be deeply compromised if ASEAN stalls or fails.

Australia knows the Southeast Asia it wants to live with. Joining ASEAN is the best way to give full expression to our future in Southeast Asia and in Asia.