Time for Australia to become a full ASEAN partner
28 Sep 2023|

The case for Australia to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations rests on the challenges ASEAN confronts as much as the association’s strengths.

Australia needs to take the next logical step in its long history of strong and sustained support for ASEAN’s central role.

As disorder becomes the future order of the sadly troubled ‘rules-based order’, Southeast Asia is even more vital to Australia’s interests in strategic order.

Aim for in-principle agreement on a form of ASEAN partnership next year, the 50th anniversary of Australia becoming the first ASEAN dialogue nation.

Stormy geopolitical weather means the ASEAN stars are aligned to consider such a dramatic idea. Confronting dimming diplomatic fortunes, ASEAN must bolster its convening powers and coherence.

Australian partnership would be a game-changer for ASEAN, as well as altering Canberra’s role in the game. If Australia got serious and started pushing, ASEAN would get a buy-one-get-one free offer—Australia plus New Zealand. If Australia wants in, so will New Zealand.

The justification for Australia enlisting was succinctly offered by former prime minister Kevin Rudd in this aside in his 2021 In the National Interest essay, ‘The case for courage’:

Australia should seek to join ASEAN, although this will be resisted by various association members to begin with. ASEAN is becoming weaker and more divided over time. Australian membership would add to ASEAN’s economic ballast by more than a third. It would also help Australia and Indonesia manage their own long-term bilateral relationship—particularly as Indonesia becomes more powerful—as common members of an important regional institution.

Australia could offer ballast burnished with ambition. Add to this a trend Australian leaders note softly—the inevitable decline in Australia’s relative power compared to Southeast Asia’s.

When I started writing about Southeast Asia nearly 50 years ago, Australia’s economy was far bigger than the region’s combined economy. That’s long gone. Rudd’s reference to the economic ballast Australia can bring is true, but our relative weight continues its inevitable decline. And we welcome the growing strength and wealth of a region of 688 million people. The economic ground lost mirrors the reality that Australia has less strategic importance for Southeast Asia than we used to. We should want to join because we need to join.

Paul Keating’s 2012 call for Australia to join ASEAN came with a nod to our shrinking power and influence. To matter in the future, the former prime minister said, it’ll be ‘completely natural’ for Australia to line up with ASEAN: ‘In the longer run we should be a member of it—formalising the many trade, commercial and political interests we already share. This is the natural place for Australia to belong; indeed, the one to which we should attribute primacy.’

A recipe for Australia joining the club is detailed in my 2018 ASPI report Australia as an ASEAN Community partner: the association should create a new category of partner for Australia and New Zealand. That was the view of a former secretary-general of ASEAN, Ong Keng Yong, whom I cite in the report.

The ‘partner’ language would sidestep the geographical veto (‘They aren’t in Southeast Asia; they can’t be part of ASEAN’). Get all the rights and obligations of a member with a partnership. The title I gave this new form of belonging is ‘ASEAN Community Partners’. Behold a classic ASEAN fix: give Australia and New Zealand membership rights but call it some form of super-partnership.

Turn to how the ASEAN stars are aligning for Australia to take a historic step in its efforts to achieve security with the region rather than from the region.

First and foremost, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo thinks Australian should belong. Five years ago, he said Australia joining the association was ‘a good idea’. He ends his second term in October next year. An in-principle deal on partnership in his final year in office would be a region-building move that also reflected Indonesian interests. As Widodo proclaimed in an address to the Australian parliament in 2020: ‘Australia is Indonesia’s closest friend.’

I was mighty chuffed after the ASEAN summit in Sydney in 2018 when word came from Jakarta that the last document Widodo looked at before his bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was the ASPI report Australia as an ASEAN Community partner.

With Indonesian backing, the rest of ASEAN’s members would be prepared to discuss the partnership idea. My division of individual country views into ‘favourable’, ‘maybe’ or ‘no’ gives Australia plenty of hope.

Singapore has always been Australia’s strongest supporter for joining ASEAN. These days Malaysia is more favourable than opposed (even Australia’s great foe of yesteryear, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, has mused that Australia might be ‘entitled’ to join). Mark the Philippines under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr as warmer than his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s administration.

The atmospherics of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s June visit to Vietnam, celebrating 50 years of diplomatic relations, highlighted the ties of ‘a strategic and economic partner and enduring friend’. Hanoi leans beyond ‘maybe’.

Edging by the inward obsessions of junta politics, a new government in Thailand is potentially warmer, so shifts to become a ‘maybe’. Brunei is always a welcoming ‘maybe’, awaiting the ASEAN tide.

Myanmar’s military regime, in disgrace and exiled from ASEAN councils, has no current voice (or veto) in the association. With Myanmar sidelined, that’s seven ASEAN members as maybes or favourable for Australia.

The members closest to China, Cambodia and Laos, are both in the ‘no’ column. ASEAN’s consensus rule means it takes only one veto. Yet Cambodia is also under ‘new’ leadership. Hun Sen has handed the top job to Hun Manet (the son also rises). ASEAN issues may be an area in which the son is allowed to demonstrate difference from the father.

The main opposition to Australia and New Zealand joining ASEAN would come from the outside, from China. In a strange way, China’s animosity would help. The last time China leaned on the association to close the door to Canberra and Wellington—in the creation of the East Asia Summit—the attempt backfired. ASEAN wasn’t prepared to obey China’s veto; Australia and New Zealand joined as inaugural members of the EAS. When China pressures ASEAN, it forces the association to ponder both symbolic and substantive moments of resistance.

Australia has been doing lots of groundwork.

In October 2021, the first annual ASEAN–Australia summit established a comprehensive strategic partnership. The Labor government has fulfilled its promise to create a special envoy for Southeast Asia, appointing former Macquarie Group CEO Nicholas Moore to the role in November 2022.

Australia’s ASEAN ambassador in Jakarta does the high politics while the special envoy does the high economics. The government has just released a report by Moore, Invested: Australia’s Southeast Asia economic strategy to 2040.

The Office of Southeast Asia was established in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade last year to coordinate Australia’s whole-of-nation efforts to deepen engagement with Southeast Asia. DFAT talks of ASEAN’s ‘profound significance for Australia’s future’ and for strategic equilibrium in the region.

An upgrade is agreed for the ASEAN–Australia–New Zealand free trade area. The fresh work on AANZFTA is a good omen, because completing its arduous negotiation in the first decade of the century formed the victory arch for Australia and New Zealand to reach the East Asia Summit.

The country that still has to be convinced and commit is—as ever—Australia. We have to decide before ASEAN will do the same. The significant shift must be in the Australian mindset.

If we come to believe, many in ASEAN would be interested in the conversation. The ultimate arguments won’t be about the geography of Southeast Asia, but about attitudes, understandings and beliefs. And the right to belong that comes from a sense of belonging.