Canberra questions why Australia should join ASEAN
12 Oct 2015|


The proposition that Australia should spend the next decade seeking observer status in ASEAN will get lots of kicks in Southeast Asia. However, the kicks in Canberra about joining ASEAN are nearly as hard.

Canberra’s argument of defeat runs that ASEAN would just say, NO! So why would we ask? And why would we want it anyway? See my previous column for the case for the affirmative.

Now to consider the negative side, as seen by the Canberra system: seeking ASEAN membership—even the half-in position of observer—would consume a lot of time and effort, complicate the relationship with ASEAN, and not produce the result requested.

The DFAT view is that Australia should put all its weight into making the East Asia Summit stronger and better. Seeking to operationalise the EAS is all about working with ASEAN, not opening a new front with a quixotic quest that will fail.

Those are strong arguments. Yet they’re arguments about the old ASEAN and the old Australia. And perhaps a disappearing Asia. The perspective is drawn from the experience of the last 40 years, not necessarily what we might need in coming decades.

The ‘no’ case misses the potential benefits by peering too closely at the difficulties. Further, the refusal to even contemplate such an initiative underestimates Asia’s changing times. All sorts of diplomatic shifts and adjustments are a-coming.

Asia’s balance of power is on the move. Who now writes the rules? The dark view is that Asia’s complex security tapestry ‘has been unravelling for some years and the rate of deterioration may be accelerating.’

The changes inside ASEAN are nearly as dramatic—at least compared to the way ASEAN used to operate. ASEAN is having to adapt, ready or not. Time for Australia to adapt as well.

The Canberra case for the negative, as seen by the Foreign Affairs Department, has been offered in some detail by Bob Carr (Foreign Minister 2012-13) in his memoirs.

In November, 2012, Paul Keating gave this speech calling for Australia to join ASEAN.

Responding to Keating, Foreign Minister Carr gave the classic the-time-is-not-ripe answer:

‘Yeah, the day might come, but they’re very proud, the 10 ASEAN nations are very proud of what they call ASEAN centrality. And you don’t force your way in to a community before time. To be right before it’s appropriate is to be wrong. The day could well come, but I suspect now is not the time. But again this is where Paul Keating has been very, very useful, he’s challenging us to think about a different future, about different arrangements in the future. I would not want Australia to put its hand up to seek membership of ASEAN at a point where the 10 ASEAN nations focused on ASEAN centrality, focused on some of the challenges in South-east Asia, the emergence of Myanmar towards democracy, for example; or the disputes over territory in the South China Sea, were not ready for an Australian admission.’

Carr wrote that this prompted Foreign Affairs to jump. One of those moments when the ‘department springs to life in ways that reveal its hidden personality.’ Up came a ministerial submission from DFAT asking Carr to clarify that, ‘Australian has no plans to seek or even consider membership even in the long term and that doing so is not nec­essary to pursuing closer engagement with the region.’

Carr recorded:

‘The sub­mission says membership of ASEAN would ‘subordinate aspects of Australian foreign policy to ASEAN. It would require Australia to refrain from any real criticism of ASEAN governments (e.g. on human-rights issues) and from putting forward alternatives to ASEAN positions. It would require Australia to accept other ASEAN countries, notably the ASEAN Chair, representing Aus­tralia in discussions with external parties such as the United States, China and international organisations.’ It then goes on to warn that membership of ASEAN would involve with it Australia having to set up an ASEAN National Secretariat to implement ASEAN decisions at the national level and that in general it would cramp Australian independence. It also warns that ASEAN countries would be strongly opposed to Australia joining. It says the Singaporean High Commissioner was twice asked informally if recent public commentary is as a result of policy consideration with the Australian government.’

So the essential case:

Base argument: ASEAN would say ‘no’.

Minor point: ASEAN membership would involve a lot of work for diplomats.

Major point: Australia would subordinate itself to ASEAN.

To be continued…..