Australia into ASEAN: the ASEAN ‘NO’
14 Dec 2015|
It's a no

The Southeast Asian rejection of Australia joining ASEAN is simply expressed: ‘You’re not from around here. You don’t think like us. You don’t belong.’

The argument is about identity defined through geography.

The previous column in this series gave an ASEAN version of the ‘Yes’ case for Australia and New Zealand making the Association a 12-nation Community.

Now for the ‘No’ case as put by Rodolfo Severino, a Philippines diplomat who was the Secretary General of ASEAN from 1998 to 2002. His summary of the negative case:

‘ASEAN will say, “You’re not Southeast Asian.” And that’s all the criterion is, to be a member of ASEAN. You must belong to a region called Southeast Asia, which was invented by Lord Mountbatten by the way – South East Asian Command – but that’s neither here nor there. The fact is that the region exists now, conceptually, which is the most important thing.’

Severino’s long held view is that Australia has a ‘sometimes ambivalent and fluctuating relationship’ with ASEAN. He describes the elements of this variable approach as:

  • Australia’s desire for economic engagement with Southeast Asia
  • Southeast Asia’s strategic location between Australia and the rest of Asia
  • ASEAN’s role as the hub of East Asian regionalism
  • Australia’s close and unwavering relationship with the US

Severino thinks the fluctuations with ASEAN reflect the larger Australian ambivalence about its place in East Asia. He sees this expressed in Australian politics, with Labor being less equivocal than the Liberal Party in ‘the desire for identification with East Asia.’

The former ASEAN Secretary General was caustic in 2005 about the Howard Government’s initial refusal to sign the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation because Howard viewed the TAC as non-aligned nonsense—a ‘relic of the Cold War.’

The ASEAN ultimatum—no TAC signature, no seat at the East Asia Summit—produced what Severino saw in 2005 as a humiliating Oz about-face:

‘Canberra’s initial refusal to sign the treaty—indeed, its denigration of it—had affected Southeast Asians’ perceptions of its intentions and motives. Australia continued to signal its reluctance even after it had apparently decided to accede to the TAC; [Foreign Minister] Downer was quoted as saying, ‘If the price (of participation in the East Asian summit) is signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, we’ll do that’… Under either political party, Australia has long considered close association with ASEAN and with the larger East Asian region to be in its highest interests. Accession to the TAC, as well as participation in the East Asian Summit, will be a highly visible manifestation of this association. All’s well that ends well, of course, but a bit more enthusiasm and a bit less reluctance on Canberra’s part would have been even better.’

When I sat down with Rodolfo Severino last year, he returned to those themes of Australian ambivalence and reluctance and the basic idea that to be ASEAN is to be Southeast Asian.

I put to him the argument that conceptions of Asian geography are expanding. The East Asia Summit embraces the US and India as well as Australia and New Zealand. What of a slow push for Australia to have observer status in ASEAN—a half-in membership—by 2024, the 50th anniversary of Australia’s dialogue partnership with ASEAN?

‘That would be something to think about. We can’t predict the long term. But in the short term the instinctive reaction would be to reject it. For many reasons. One is – to me the more resonant one – is the tendency of Australians to tell Southeast Asians what is good for them. Maybe it needs saying, but not as a member, a permanent observer.’

Southeast Asians, he says, look at Australia as a little US, and ‘although secretly the US is welcome’ in the region it’s not politically fashionable to say so publicly.

‘Australia is regarded as a deputy sheriff of the US. The question to answer is: “Are you Asian enough?” For Severino, a ten year push for Australia to have observer status in ASEAN is too short a time to get a positive answer to that query about Asian identity: ‘I like to talk about facts, realities. So I think observer status is out of the question at this point.’

Severino says Australia has a record in Southeast Asia for practical diplomacy and contributing as a good partner, but part of the Australian psyche is still European: ‘The problem with Australia is its ambivalence. At some point when Australia feels confident enough to say, “We are in Southeast Asia and we deserve to be in ASEAN,” then that will be the time. But this has to be worked out internally, domestically.’