Does Australia need an ASEAN special envoy?
29 Jun 2022|

Foreign Minister Penny Wong is visiting Vietnam and Malaysia this week on her second trip to Southeast Asia since taking office in late May. In opposition, Labor committed to deepening Australia’s engagement with Southeast Asia, including appointing an ‘ASEAN special envoy’ to the subregion. This remains Labor’s intention in government and was reiterated earlier this month by Defence Minister Richard Marles at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

Before an appointment is made, it’s worth asking: how useful would the new special envoy be? As with all such roles, the answer depends partly on who fills it. Labor has said the envoy will be a ‘high-level roving regional ambassador’. Among the crop of former and serving Australian senior officials, the pool of qualified candidates who can credibly access senior decision-makers across Southeast Asia is small. The contemporary embodiment of a Dick Woolcott could be hard to find, though not impossible. The government may comb the ranks of retired ministers instead, but political grandees with regional gravitas are likewise in short supply—a situation made harder by Labor’s long furlough out of office.

In terms of purpose, the ASEAN envoy will be expected to ‘complement existing missions and cut through bureaucratic blockages’. Australia has had an ambassador accredited to ASEAN resident in Jakarta since 2008, so that job is taken. Labor has also committed to standing up an office of Southeast Asia in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to ‘ensure whole-of-government coordination of Australian efforts’. Analogous to the Pacific coordination office in DFAT, currently led by Ewen McDonald, the new Southeast Asia office will need to be staffed and a new head found. The ASEAN special envoy would need to eke out a role in between these positions and that of the foreign minister. Doing so without duplication of function or treading on toes could be tricky.

Creating a special envoy for Southeast Asia probably makes more sense than one collectively serving ASEAN, especially if the intention is to beef up Australia’s bilateral and minilateral links within the subregion. It would also have the advantage of including Timor-Leste.

Marles has said that he aims to ‘tighten military ties with Southeast Asia’, but the Department of Defence has its own bureaucracy and diplomatic effort underway for that purpose. Labor has also said that it plans to ‘deliver a comprehensive ASEAN Economic Strategy to 2040’. A roving envoy could concentrate on expediting that objective, though that’s likely to require a trade specialist and detract from the wider role.

Let’s assume that the government identifies a suitable candidate who has what it takes to blitz bureaucratic blockages in Canberra. The special envoy would still have their work cut out in cutting through in Southeast Asia. Foreign ministries in the subregion tend to be conservative and protective of protocol. Access to foreign ministers, let alone heads of government, can be difficult to get—even for the Americans. Unless Australia’s envoy already has gravitas, they may find their access capped below ministerial level—useful for policy stitchwork but too low for political buy-in. In most countries it’s not clear who the envoy’s counterpart would be or the added value they would provide, particularly in security and defence cooperation.

The bigger question overhanging the envoy appointment is whether there is sufficiently juicy fruit for the picking in Southeast Asia to justify the role. Labor criticised the previous government for not adequately prioritising Southeast Asia, despite its large population, market size and proximity to Australia. The previous government was also blamed for its tone when talking to and about China.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese chose Indonesia for his first bilateral visit after taking office, symbolically underlining the broader significance of Southeast Asia to Australia’s new government. But if Canberra’s foremost strategic interest is balancing, as suggested by Marles’s speech at the Singapore security summit, the pickings on offer in Southeast Asia are not obvious, or certainly not at a level within easy reach of a subministerial envoy.

One suggestion for the new government would be to expand the envoy’s geographical scope Indo-Pacific-wide. While Southeast Asia would remain central to their remit, this would open up additional opportunities on more fertile ground, not just with the Quad partners, but also with countries such as Bangladesh and South Korea, where an Australian plenipotentiary might be surprised by the welcome they receive.

The analogue would be something more like the US coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs on the National Security Council, Kurt Campbell. The French have an ambassador to the Indo-Pacific and the EU a special envoy. Basic symmetry with partners’ positions would yield complementary opportunities for Australia’s regional envoy—to reinforce their messaging when appropriate, but still fundamentally representing an independent standpoint anchored on Australia’s national interests and place in the region.

Even then, access might prove uneven, but a bigger stage would ensure that Australia’s Indo-Pacific special envoy always had an open door to knock on. It could also free up more of the foreign minister’s time to serve as Australia’s primary envoy to Southeast Asia, which might be a more effective signal of the subregion’s importance.