Australia needs to refocus on ASEAN

Author: Gareth Evans, ANU

Things just haven’t clicked the way they should have in the Australian–ASEAN relationship. We seem far removed from the time when as Australia’s Foreign Minister I had no counterparts anywhere in the world with whom I felt more close and comfortable. And from when, at one of the Cambodian peace conferences, having stumbled inadvertently into an ASEAN foreign ministers’ coffee meeting, my apologies were waved aside with the words ‘Come on in. You’re one of us.’

Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott holds hands ASEAN leaders during the ASEAN–Australia 40th Anniversary Commemorative Summit in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, 12 November 2014. (Photo: AAP).

These days it seems to me that ASEAN simply doesn’t feature as largely in Australia’s collective consciousness as it should or (Indonesia perhaps excepted) get the policy attention it should; Australian politicians don’t go out of their way to forge personal relationships with regional counterparts as they should; students don’t study the region’s languages anything like as much as they should, and indeed used to; and — compared to other countries — there is a really striking lack of Australian financial investment in the region.

Why is this the case?

It cannot be the diminished size or relevance of ASEAN for the Australian economy or its strategic decision-making. Australia’s two-way trade with the ASEAN bloc, with its 600 million people, is 15 per cent of the total, putting it second only to China, and well ahead of Japan and the US. Australia is the major provider of Western education to a number of countries in the region. Beyond economics, Australia has developed real intimacy in defence and police relations in many parts of the region, and continues to engage in an intense flurry of diplomatic activity. One reason ASEAN occupies less mental space of policymakers may be that there has been some degree of disappointment in the way that ASEAN as an institution has functioned. Another may be that China’s quite explosive rise has forced everyone to change their sense of relative geopolitical priorities.

But ASEAN still matters a lot geo-strategically for Australia. Its very existence – like that of the European Union – has been an extremely effective conflict prevention mechanism in a region whose previous volatility, and propensity for bloody interstate violence, seems to have been forgotten. When it comes to building effective regional security and economic dialogue and policymaking mechanisms, Australian policymakers have seen to their cost that irritation with ASEAN’s insistence on its centrality in these institutions is counterproductive. It may not make much rational sense to have all ten ASEAN states sitting at every major table when three or four would do, but it makes political sense to go with that flow.

This lesson was learned early on in constructing APEC, and working to build the ASEAN Regional Forum. But subsequent Australian Foreign Ministers have had to learn it the hard way. While the East Asia Summit has finally come together, it is still a work in progress. It is a leaders’ forum with the membership and mandate to be a really effective policy engine for the wider region.

Beyond these formal institutional processes, there is perhaps a larger point to be made about how Australian policymakers should be thinking about their Southeast Asian neighbours. In the present evolving and uncertain regional geostrategic environment, Australia might well be wise to be a little less overwhelmingly preoccupied with the United States and China, and to become rather more focused on consolidating our position closer to home. This means developing stronger, closer and more multidimensional relationships with ASEAN and its key member countries.

The argument is essentially that Australia would be more comfortably placed to navigate a course between its superpower military ally and its emerging-superpower major economic partner if it had a stronger identity as a strategic and economic partner with South East Asian neighbours. Australia could, once and for all, shrug off the lingering perception around Asia that it is playing ‘deputy sheriff’ to the United States. This is the kind of role that Australia was building with ASEAN — and especially Indonesia — during the Hawke-Keating governments. But it diminished during the Howard years and Australia has not recovered that ground since.

Any significant move to consolidate and strengthen institutional and personal ties with Southeast Asia — and to make this a clearer and stronger element in the overall foreign policy narrative — need not and should not come at the expense of Australia’s established relationships with the United States and China, and with Japan and South Korea, or even of neglecting the need to rapidly further develop our relationship with India.

It is a matter simply of recognising that nothing is static in the world; that all of us need as many close friendships as we can; and that for Australia there is much to be gained, and nothing to be lost, by making much more of the friendships it already has with its immediate northern neighbours.

There are many areas in which Australia could directly benefit from closer cooperation. These include not only the familiar area of education but also counter-terrorism, civil nuclear energy, agri-food, Islamic banking and forced migration.

Out of all the areas of current and future concern that would benefit from a generally more engaged relationship, forced migration is most in need of rapid advancement. No Australian political party — in or out of government, or sitting on the cross-benches — has conducted itself with any glory in the handling of the asylum seeker issue in recent years.

One of the least glorious chapters of all has been the utter inability of our policymakers to bring to fruition the arrangements contemplated by the Bali Process, which looked for a time so promising, and put in place once and for all an effective regional processing system. But Australia is not going to get there without a rather fundamental recalibration of its attitudes and behaviour towards ASEAN neighbours.

ASEAN matters a lot and it should get more systematically focused attention from both Australia’s business community and foreign policymakers.

Gareth Evans is Chancellor of the Australian National University, Co-Chair of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and served as Australia’s Foreign Minister from 1988–1996. This article was adapted from a speech for the launch of Sally Percival Wood and Baogang He (eds) The Australia–ASEAN dialogue: Tracing forty years of partnership (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

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Australia needs to refocus on ASEAN