Australia into ASEAN: the ASEAN ‘YES’
7 Dec 2015|

The case for Australia joining ASEAN will have to be embraced by both sides. Here’s the ‘Yes’ case from ASEAN’s perspective.

The first three columns in this series were Canberra-centric, establishing why Australia should seek membership of ASEAN, the dismissive view of Foreign Affairs and the Oz negatives.

Now the series will present a range of ASEAN responses.

A strong voice for the affirmative is the former head of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry, the ASEAN intellectual Kishore Mahbubani (anointed by The Economist as Asia’s Toynbee while The Washington Post sees him as Asia’s Max Weber).

Mahbubani thinks the country facing the most painful adjustment to the Asian century is undoubtedly Australia. Joining ASEAN is a smart response to the danger that ‘Australia could well be left beached, together with New Zealand, as the sole Western entity in Asia.’ He makes the ‘Yes case here, contending that Australia’s ASEAN dilemma is national ego versus long-term interests—and hard geopolitics will trump Oz cultural identity:

‘In the long run, Australia will also have no choice but to seek membership in ASEAN. Right now, any such option is unthinkable in the minds of the Australian elite. Yet this is precisely the kind of “unthinkable” option that Australia has to consider as it enters the most challenging geopolitical environment of its history. In thinking of the unthinkable, Australian leaders should also ask themselves a simple question: why is Australian membership of ASEAN unthinkable? In due course, the honest answer will come out. The main disconnect between ASEAN and Australia is in the cultural dimension. ASEAN is Asian in culture and spirit. Australia is Western in culture and spirit. The main reason why Australia will be uncomfortable as a member of ASEAN is that it will have to learn how to behave as an Asian rather than as a Western nation. In thinking about this discomfort, Australians should bear in mind a new reality for Australia. Australia will have to change course in the Asian century. It will only have painful options. There will be no painless options. The big question that Australia will have to ponder as it looks ahead at its future in the 21st century is a simple one: will it be more painful for Australia to join ASEAN (and thereby accept both its constraints and its valuable geopolitical buffer) or will it be more painful for Australia to remain beached alone as the sole Western country (with New Zealand) in a resurgent Asia of 3.5 billion people?’

No choice but to join! When I started work on this series last year, Mahbubani was my first formal interview. He says the biggest challenge Australia faces is a ‘fundamental change in mindset.’ The inevitability of the choice will be driven by the inexorable decline in the relative size of Australia’s economy compared to East Asia: ‘It’s frightening that not more Australians are saying, “It’s time to change”.’

Singapore, he says, would gladly have Australia in ASEAN and has said so privately.

As Foreign Ministry Secretary (1993-98), Mahbubani raised the idea of a community of 12 (ASEAN 10 plus Australia and New Zealand) with Australia’s Foreign Affairs Secretary, Michael Costello, during the Keating Labor government (1991-96). ‘I used to mention it when I was in ASEAN senior officials meetings—there was no outrageous reaction.’

Back then, the veto by Malaysia’s Mahathir would have been instant. Now, Mabubani thinks, Malaysia would see advantages.

Several other ASEAN thinkers believe the geopolitical veto would be from China—using Cambodia as proxy. Beijing could replay the spoiler role it attempted when Australia got membership of the East Asia Summit.

Mahbubani isn’t so sure China would object:

‘From China’s point of view, it means Australia is less pro-American and more sensitive to its Asian neighbourhood; it’s a plus for China. If you want to join ASEAN you become less pro-American and you behave more like an ASEAN state, it’s in their [China’s] interests.’

No strong ASEAN veto sentiment exists, he says, partly because the idea hasn’t come up:

‘I may be wrong, but I don’t think so. I mean, you need to lay the groundwork. You need to prepare everyone for the change. The problem is no one has ever thought about it because it wasn’t in the cards. Once it appears on the cards then they’ll start thinking and reflecting on the pros and cons.’

Doing this the ASEAN way means slow work, much talk, no public pushing. The proposition of this series is that Australia seeks half-in status—join as an ASEAN observer in 2024 on the 50th anniversary of Australia becoming ASEAN’s first national dialogue partner.

Mahbubani sees an observer bid as a good but small step.

‘Observer status is no big deal,’ he remarks.

Accepting that view, doesn’t that make it a gentle way to ease into the membership discussion?

‘I think the critical thing is to decide whether or not you think it’s in your national interest to join, and work towards that goal. Observer status is just a little subterfuge to try and get close on the way there – it should not become the end destination.’

Many elements would feed into Australia’s ASEAN shift. Mahbubani nominates:

  • Asian language courses for every Australian schoolchild (not confined to ASEAN languages)
  • Australia systematically signing up to ASEAN agreements
  • Getting closer to the ASEAN voting stream at the United Nations

‘Your biggest challenge is domestic,’ Mahbubani says. ‘You’ve got to persuade the Australian population.’

Next week, the ‘No’ case.