In thinking of the future of Australia-ASEAN relations, there is a need to maintain a balance between continuing what has been successful and recognizing the limitations in order to innovate new approaches.
First of all, Australia should continue what has been effective in interaction with the ASEAN region: positive trajectory of bilateral relationships with each of the ASEAN member-states, as well as with ASEAN as an institution. This is an important distinction since ASEAN does not have a common foreign policy line.
Perception-wise, Australia has been in a very beneficial position with the ASEAN partners. Throughout the region the perception of Australia is benign and Southeast Asia is responsive to Australian cooperation initiatives. In other words, there is an ample of political will and mutual interests in deepening the relations. PM Malcolm Turnbull presence at regional fora, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s frequent visits to the region, or the upcoming Australia-ASEAN Summit next year are all well-received reiteration of cooperative intention. Convening good will is particularly important for this region.
For Southeast Asia, in the current juncture of time where China’s rise creates a lot of anxiety and the U.S. unpredictability questions its reliability, Australia can emerge as a pillar of stability – a reliable partner with a continuous foreign policy line. This is what Canberra should capitalize on – the consistency of foreign policy in the line of the rule-based order and respect for international law. This is what a group of smaller and middle-size countries are in particular need – an element of stability.
For Australia, Southeast Asia – the closest in proximity region – should grow also closer mentally. As much as Southeast Asian partners, Australia’s attention is preoccupied with China and the U.S., it should also re-calibrate the priorities.
Secondly, past engagement with Southeast Asia should have built sufficient confidence for Canberra to recognize ASEAN’s institutional weaknesses.
ASEAN, while reaching 50th anniversary, is also in need for re-inventing itself. At the moment, while celebrating some impressive achievement of the past, it is also facing some severe criticism of under-delivering. The perception of being divided by China and Sino-U.S. competition seems to be prevailing to the degree it has overshadowed ASEAN’s successes and affected its perception.
It is in regional interest – and Australian too – to keep ASEAN institution strong. Australia should reiterate the importance of this regional organization on the global arena and put emphasis on its role in the peace and stability in Asia Pacific. Reiterating confidence in ASEAN’s multilateralism through continuous support for ASEAN-led architecture, including the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, or ASEAN Minister Meetings. An example of supporting ASEAN’s regional role is providing diplomatic support for ideas of legally binding Code of Conduct that would be a base of peaceful and legally-based resolution of conflict and disputes. Another way is to provide capacity building for ASEAN’s institutional development, including for example strengthening the ASEAN Secretariat.
Australian engagement with Southeast Asia should go beyond trade and diplomatic relations. A number of areas for cooperation where Australia can champion in the regions are: