Australia’s ever-changing perspectives on ASEAN: time to get it right
1 Mar 2018|

Throughout the last half-century, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has occupied a variety of roles in Australian strategic thinking. Australia has been supportive, fearful, fascinated, distant and neglectful. It has even contemplated joining.

Despite geographical proximity and long-term diplomatic engagement, Australia still has blind spots, which change according to the prevailing political mood in Canberra. Its current embrace of ASEAN is welcomed by the region. And undoubtedly, Australia’s deep-rooted connections with Southeast Asia will remain strong.

But how Australia should position itself relative to ASEAN is still unclear. One thing is certain: ASEAN isn’t, and shouldn’t be considered, the sum total of Australia’s engagement in Southeast Asia.

It’s important for any future policy decisions that Canberra is serious about embracing a comprehensive view of ASEAN. It isn’t merely a ‘talk shop’. Nor is it a sacred cow that can’t be approached critically. ASEAN’s political and economic interests and activities are vast, and there should be no shortcuts in assessing them.

Southeast Asia’s geographical proximity to Australia hasn’t changed, but Canberra’s perspective often has. At the outset Australia recognised the regional body’s importance when it became ASEAN’s first dialogue partner in 1974. But the fluctuating diplomatic support for ASEAN in the decades since then has been labelled ‘the Australian ambivalence’. The tendency to overlook its neighbours and focus on bigger and more powerful partners—often geographically distant—hasn’t gone away, notwithstanding Australian participation in many ASEAN-centred institutions that have enabled deeper economic and security engagement with Asia.

Diplomatic engagement with ASEAN has contributed to Australia’s process of reinventing its identity as an ‘Asia–Pacific’ power and the current debate over a future ‘Indo-Pacific’ polity. In 2008 Kevin Rudd suggested the idea of an ‘Asia–Pacific community’. That received a mixed reception. ASEAN, in particular, saw it as an attempt to overshadow the organisation’s role as the central pillar of the region’s economic and security architecture. The idea never gained support, and it has taken Canberra some time before attempting another repositioning of itself vis-à-vis the region.

Ten years on, both the Turnbull government and the opposition seem to have embraced the idea that ASEAN will remain vital to Australia’s economic and trade security. The 2017 foreign policy white paper recognised ASEAN’s regional centrality. And Australia has invited regional leaders and business representatives to attend the first Australia–ASEAN Special Summit in March 2018. It’s worth remembering, however, that ASEAN has a number of special dialogues and partnerships in place—it just completed the ASEAN–India Commemorative Summit in January. So the summit might be the first and special in Australian eyes, but it’s neither for ASEAN.

The initiative involves a considerable bureaucratic commitment led by the prime minister’s department. Its broad agenda testifies to the current renewed enthusiasm for the region. To some observers, it could push Australia to consider joining ASEAN. Graeme Dobell’s proposition has a strong point: joining ASEAN would entail a formal and fixed commitment to the institution and the region. Although the current debate is confined to a small circle in Canberra—and isn’t happening at all in the region—Australian membership of ASEAN could serve as ‘shock therapy’ that might inject the organisation with a new dose of confidence and resources.

The counter-arguments, however, are many. It’s unlikely that the 10 ASEAN members—who already struggle with internal unity—would accept major changes that would further dilute their fragile sense of commonality. Australian accession—let alone bundling New Zealand and others—would distort existing dynamics between mainland and maritime Southeast Asia. It would also shift the centre of gravity towards the Pacific. So the idea of bringing others on board would further distract from ASEAN’s already bumpy regional identity project.

If the idea is to be seriously entertained, Australia needs to be careful to avoid any resemblance to the Rudd-era concept that essentially meant bypassing ASEAN. Also, the assumption that ASEAN is a grouping of middle powers that could offer a shield for Australia remains wishful thinking.

Current geostrategic volatility associated with the developing power shift in the region is the imperative for Australia to seek closer ties with Southeast Asia. However, Canberra needs to have a deeper recognition of what ASEAN is, and a better understanding of what ASEAN membership would entail. The special summit signals, hopefully, continued and broadening partnerships with the region that will foster greater mutual understanding.

Australia’s varying attitudes towards ASEAN has resembled a drawing class exercise on getting perspective right. Australia has been outside, in front of, behind, beside, overlooking, far away, close up and, one day, may even be inside ASEAN. Let’s hope that its enthusiasm doesn’t burn out after the summit, and that Canberra’s current fascination isn’t just a passing phase.