Australia and ASEAN

World leaders meet for the 2012 ASEAN summit. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
19 March 2013
World leaders meet for the 2012 ASEAN summit. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

With its successful diplomatic history and growing economic muscle, SUSAN HARRIS-RIMMER asks whether ASEAN is Australia’s best partner for navigating the Asian century.

While Australia is increasingly looking to the economic might of China as a new golden dawn, our fortunes in the Asian century may be better made a little closer to our shores – and in particular the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN).

This is certainly the viewpoint of Ambassador I Gede Ngurah Swajaya, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Indonesia to ASEAN about the regional organisation turning heads around the globe for its increasing ability to get things done.

Speaking at the ANU Asia Pacific College of Diplomacy, Ambassador Ngurah urged Australia to strengthen its economic and political ties to the regional organisation with a proven track record in diplomacy and increasing economic clout.  

Ambassador Ngurah is exceptionally qualified to provide insight into ASEAN and its future due to his position and experience as one of Indonesia’s most senior diplomats and multilateral negotiators, as well as the crucial role Indonesia plays in ASEAN.  During the lecture he provided frank assessments and offered insight into ASEAN’s beginnings as a loose network in 1967 growing into a rules-based ‘people-centred’ organisation that hopes to take the next step by creating an ASEAN economic community by 2015.  

According to Ambassador Ngurah, it is this massive single market which promises so much for Australia.  

He noted that the member states of ASEAN comprise a population of 600 million people, with combined GDP valued at about US$2.2 trillion. This makes ASEAN the third largest economy in Asia, after China and Japan.  

But he was also frank about the challenges ASEAN members face in the lead-up to 2015. It is no small mountain, with the list of tests including unsettled territorial disputes, tensions over the South China Sea and in the Korean Peninsula, human rights issues, the uncertain global economy, income inequality gaps within and between ASEAN members, energy and food security, investment for infrastructure, disaster management, and agreement over standards for the treatment of migrant workers.

The diplomat's talk went much further than that, however, with him throwing down the gauntlet to the Australian Government in the politest manner possible. He asked why Australia is not investing in ASEAN at the pace and level one might expect in line with its national interest (most notably trade with China) and opportunities for growth.  He did note the priority given by Australia to the East Asia Summit, which comprises the ASEAN nations as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the United States and Russia.

Ambassador Ngurah made positive reference to a recent AsiaLink  report, (with a forward by ANU Chancellor Gareth Evans), Our Place in the Asian Century: South East Asia as the Third Way. The report calls for an ASEAN strategy.  He agreed with the report’s premise that the US pivot/rebalancing towards the Asia Pacific region and the rise of China, meant that Australia needed a ‘neutral partner’ in the region.  ASEAN could be seen, in his words, “as a vehicle to bring Australia closer to Asia”, which could have been given much more prominence as a strategy in the Asian Century white paper.  

There were also some key recommendations for increased collaboration between Australia and ASEAN, including increasing Australia’s profile in ASEAN member states and ASEAN’s profile in Australia through trade, education, tourism  and other people-to-people contacts; elevating  the level of partnership from a comprehensive to a strategic partnership; and supporting the ASEAN community building process.

Australia could also work closely with ASEAN in other regional organisations including the East Asia Summit, APEC, and the ASEAN Regional Forum; develop a track-two dialogue to identify new areas of cooperation; and increase the frequency of Summits at the Leaders’ level.

Dr Susan Harris-Rimmer is Director of Studies at the Asia Pacific College of Diplomacy and an epxert on regional diplomacy and international relations.


Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team