Getting to know the neighbours

24 October 2012

ROBERT CRIBB reflects on the future of ASEAN, why Southeast Asia matters to Australia and how the nation can better engage with the region.

Southeast Asia might sit in China’s shadow, but with over 600 million people, four million square kilometres of territory, and a collective economy that sends more goods to Australia than does China, Southeast Asia is a world player and vital to Australia’s future. Today Southeast Asia is where tens of thousands of Australians live and work comfortably, being recognised as distinctive and largely Western, yet now belonging to the region. More than 1.5 million Australians visit Southeast Asia each year as tourists, and about half that number visit Australia from Southeast Asia, many to study here at The Australian National University. The histories of Australia and Southeast Asia may be very different, but their futures are intertwined. After all, they share the same corner of the globe as well as many of the same aspirations.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has played a crucial role over the last 45 years in shaping this region with which Australia is now heavily interconnected. Once seen as a pale reflection of the kind of integration promised by the European Union, ASEAN has now emerged as an exemplar supra-national body that, despite having many disparate people groups, religions, histories and languages, achieves cooperation without unduly pooling sovereignty. ASEAN has played a crucial role in bringing about Southeast Asia’s long peace since the wars in Indo-China. Its existence has repeatedly deflated pumped-up emotions that might have led to serious conflict between neighbours in the region and it has generated a still-fragile but real sense of Southeast Asian identity across the region. As a result, significant cooperation has been achieved.

For Australia’s future, the importance of ASEAN is twofold. First, its capacity to preside over inter-state peace across the region and incremental cooperation within and between its member states remains undiminished by the strains of occasional financial and political crises. This model for peace and cooperation provides important parameters for Australia’s multi-faceted engagement with the region.

Second, ASEAN has increasingly reached beyond its own borders to apply its soothing effect to the sharp conflicts of East Asia to the north. Here we need to be realistic: just as ASEAN has not prevented occasional tensions between Cambodia and Thailand and between Indonesia and Malaysia, so it can hardly be expected to deliver solutions for the more entrenched disputes further north. But ASEAN’s presence as a broker in a region where Cold War tensions are still alive makes it a force for peace well beyond its own borders. Working alongside the countries of ASEAN can help make this happen through increased bonds across many fields of endeavour. Such collaboration will help ensure the safety and wellbeing of current and future generations of Australians, Southeast Asians and beyond.

And this is why it is critical that Australia has an informed understanding of and the ability to engage with the region, its many countries and an institution as important as ASEAN. This is exactly what we are striving to do with our work at ANU, and it is something which will be greatly assisted with the launch today of a new research institute – the Southeast Asia Institute.

Sitting in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, the new institute will bring together the University’s unrivalled level of expertise on the region and promote greater understanding of its many diverse nations, as well as ASEAN.

ANU has the largest community of academic specialists on Southeast Asia in the world, outside Southeast Asia itself. Our 80 academics conduct significant research on the region as well as supervise some 200 research students,” said Professor Cribb.

Our experts also teach at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels with an unequalled focus on languages from the region, inlcuding Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Tetum and Javanese. The University’s strength in Southeast Asian studies is based on its long history of national engagement with the region, and our research has strongly shaped national and international understandings of the region.

The Institute will build on this and complete specialist research and work on Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste and Vietnam. It will also undertake work on ASEAN, has not only kept the peace in Southeast Asia and Australia’s environment, but it is playing a soothing role behind the scenes in the volatile international politics of East Asia.

It’s time to get to know the neighbours better, and we look forward to making that happen.

Professor Robert Cribb is the Head of the new Southeast Asia Institute in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. Launched by ASEAN Secretary-General Dr Surin, the research institute brings together the unrivalled Southeast Asia expertise at ANU to promote work and research on the region and ASEAN.

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