Big Oz bets on Asia (part one)
20 Mar 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user blickpixel.

The Foreign Policy White Paper to be produced this year must place big bets in Asia. The multi-purpose bets must imagine expanded interests and seek insurance against a protectionist US president who’s sceptical of alliances.

In our dark, private imaginings, the new Asia wagers will be insurance with both trade and strategic dimensions. In our public presentations, however, the Asia policy gush is just another stage in Australia’s decades-long journey into Asia. As ever, ‘the odd man in’ (Dick Woolcott’s  wonderful phrase) wants to keep digging in. Going big in Asia will strengthen, not weaken, Australia’s ability to speak in Washington.

Australia needs to think new thoughts in Asia while trying to Trump-proof the US alliance. Our policy on Trump’s America will be hold on hard and hope. The Trump uncertainties, in turn, compel Canberra to do what it should be doing anyway in Asia. It’s time for a fresh burst of policy; Oz  push, persuasion and even a bit of passion in pursuit of renewed regional purposes.

Looking well beyond Donald Trump, though, the Foreign Policy White Paper will gamble on the shape of Asia’s order in the 21st century. Australia’s bets should:

  1. See Japan as an independent strategic leader in Asia
  2. Support ASEAN by seeking membership of the Association for Australia and New Zealand
  3. Align Australia’s Asia policy interests with Indonesia
  4. Seek strategic convergence with India, building shared interests in the Indo-Pacific
  5. Seal a grand Oz bargain with China based on economic, social and legal agreements

Let’s tackle the first two bets…

The close partnership Australia has built with Japan since the 1960s must reach a new strategic level. The long economic partnership is the natural platform for broader cooperation in Asia; Tokyo and Canberra can be the core of a coalition for openness in the global economy. Australia created its formal alliance with the US to prevent Japan ever taking independent strategic action again. Now Australia desperately wants Japan to step up to regional leadership.

The US–Oz–Japan trilateral was designed to help Japan reemerge; suddenly it’s a tool to stop the US from reneging. The crucial allies come together to try to manage the great ally. Australia is betting that Shinzo Abe isn’t a leadership outlier but that he can deliver a permanent change in Japan’s strategic outlook: a Japan that remakes its Asian identity and claims an expanded leadership role.   A big bet.

The Oz–Japan bet is also one ASEAN will have to embrace if Trump bilateralism diminishes America’s role in the East Asia Summit and other ASEAN-centred regional security efforts. Already, ASEAN thinkers are suggesting that the ‘clear alternative for ASEAN is for Japan and Australia to fill the gap where the US falls short’.

If ASEAN wins, Australia wins. If ASEAN fails, Australia is imperilled. To that end, Australia needs to start the slow process of becoming an ASEAN member. If Australia seeks ASEAN membership, New Zealand would come along, and a joint Oz–Kiwi effort would be mutually reinforcing. Convincing the Kiwis would be the easiest part.

Two huge arguments need to be confronted. One, obviously, is with ASEAN. The ten-member Association will take a mountain of convincing. The other is that Australia will have to convince itself of the importance of the change; only then can Canberra convince ASEAN. The ultimate argument won’t be about the geography of Southeast Asia; it’ll be about attitudes, understandings and beliefs. Australia would become part of ASEAN’s political, economic and strategic Community. A great leap of imagination can drive a journey that will take decades.

My original argument was that Australia should reach to be half-in, with formal Observer status by 2024, the 50th anniversary of Australia becoming ASEAN’s first dialogue partner. That’s the approach favoured by former foreign minister, Stephen Smith, who argued that:

‘We should start a conversation with Indonesia and with ASEAN about Australia becoming an Observer to ASEAN… you go to a halfway house, to Observer status that says to ASEAN and Indonesia, we’re serious about this and puts you on a potential pathway to ASEAN membership but not a pathway you necessarily have to adopt.’

A more direct approach to negating the geographic veto (they’re not in Southeast Asia, they don’t belong) is offered by a previous Secretary-General of ASEAN, Ong Keng Yong. He suggests a fresh form, a new category of membership. Perhaps Australia and New Zealand could become ASEAN Community Partners.

We’ll take up the remaining three bets next week…