ASEAN has achieved much in its 50 years, but it is currently perceived as underperforming and facing difficult challenges ahead. Australia, as ASEAN’s longest-standing partner, should support its multilateralism, look for opportunities to deepen the relationship, and show area-specific leadership in Southeast Asia, Huong Le Thu writes.
Southeast Asia is an extremely dynamic region with an abundance of potential. ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is an inter-governmental institution of ten member-states with a dwindling reputation. There is no single ASEAN foreign policy; each individual member has its own. So with that in mind, how should Australia re-imagine its ties with its regional neighbours?
It is important to recognise that Australian bilateral relationships with the countries of Southeast Asia have, for some time now, been on a positive trajectory. The perception about Australia across the region, both within Southeast Asia and beyond, has been consistently largely positive.
Countries in the region have broadly welcomed Australian engagement and the level of trust is growing. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s presence at regional fora, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s frequent visits to the region, and the upcoming Australia-ASEAN Summit next March are all well-received reiterations of this cooperative spirit. Conveying good will is particularly important for this region.
For Southeast Asia and ASEAN, there are some turbulent waters ahead that require careful navigation. China’s assertive rise is creating much anxiety in the region and Donald Trump’s unpredictability puts a question mark over whether the US can be relied on now and into the future.
In the shadow of these twin challenges, Australia has the opportunity to emerge as a pillar of stability – a reliable partner with a continuous foreign policy line. This is what Canberra should capitalise on – the consistency of foreign policy premised on a rules-based order and respect for international law.
An element of stability in these very uncertain times is what the smaller and middle-sized countries of the region are in particular need of.
As for relations with ASEAN, which is celebrating its 50thanniversary this year, Australia also has an advantageous position. Australia was ASEAN’s first dialogue partner back in 1974, which means that it has been engaged with the ASEAN norms and values – the so-called ASEAN Way – for longer than half of the Association’s members (Brunei joined in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999). This sets a very strong foundation, and one that allowed for the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand free trade agreement to be put in place in 2010, and for the Australia-ASEAN relationship to develop into a strategic partnership in 2014.
In further advancing this relationship, though, Canberra needs to be sensitive to some current dynamics and moods in the region.
Because while celebrating its golden anniversary, ASEAN needs not only to acknowledge its past accomplishment but also to reflect on the future direction – precisely in order to (at least) live up to its past glories.
The current perception of ASEAN is overwhelmingly critical: that it is under-delivering. Hence, the biggest challenge for the region is not only responding to great powers’ competition but determining how the organisation can re-invent itself to continue to be relevant to members and meet the challenges ahead. This will inevitably involve questions about how member-states can persist with unity and safeguard the sense of “togetherness” despite the different forces that speak to their diverging – short-term – interests and pull them in different directions.
ASEAN, as a group, needs to collectively recognise that its common security is its unifying – long-term – interest.
It is in the regional interest – and Australia’s interest too – to keep ASEAN institution strong.
Australia can help in this regard by using the anniversary as an opportunity to reiterate the importance of this regional organisation in the global arena and put emphasis on ASEAN’s role in the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region.
Australia can do this by demonstrating confidence in ASEAN’s multilateralism through continuous support for ASEAN-led architecture, including the East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), or ASEAN Ministerial Meetings (AMM).
An example of supporting ASEAN’s regional role is providing diplomatic support for the idea of legally binding Code of Conduct that would provide a base of peaceful and legally-based management of conflict and disputes. Another way is to provide capacity building for ASEAN’s institutional development, including, for example, strengthening the ASEAN Secretariat.
Australia, as ASEAN’s long-term friend, can play a pivotal role in reminding its own members about the relevance of multilateralism.
Beyond that, Australia’s engagement with Southeast Asia needs to go deeper than simple trade and diplomatic relations. There are a number of areas for cooperation that Australia can champion in the region, but the most effective approach would be for Canberra to focus on advancing in fewer areas but taking leadership in them, rather than grasping too many.
There are many significant issues common to both Southeast Asia and Australia, including climate change; combating terrorism and extremism; innovation and scientific collaboration, and food safety. All of these represent gilt-edged opportunities for deep collaboration, engagement, and leadership.
As ASEAN celebrates its birthday, Australia, as the rest of the region, should celebrate its achievements. But the next 50 years should be marked by Australia playing a greater role in supporting ASEAN and finding new ways to engage with Southeast Asia.
This piece was written by Dr Huong Le Thu, visiting fellow at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre. It was first published by Policy Forum.