ASEAN 50: Should Australia reimagine how we engage through ASEAN?

Picture of Dr Mathew Davies

Dr Mathew Davies

Australia must reimagine its relations with ASEAN. Australia should make ASEAN specifically, and Southeast East Asia generally, the prime focus of attention. ASEAN is a key economic partner, an important bulwark for the rule of law in the Asia-Pacific and an opportunity for Australia to display leadership in a region of central importance to national goals.

As such Australia should not aim to join ASEAN, but it should aim to be recognised as ASEAN’s closest friend. Achieving this requires the continuation of our support for ASEAN activities, an intensification of that support in key areas central to Australia’s national interest and broader social developments within Australia regarding our national identity.

The relationship between Australia and ASEAN should be consciously holistic – covering not just traditional diplomacy but a sustained engagement with social, educational, economic and strategic concerns. Such breadth would overcome reticence from ASEAN members regarding Australia, reticence due to a sense that Australia remains an extra-regional player who picks and chooses when to engage, not an embedded state whose first reflex is regional.

Such a reimagining would have a series of benefits. In particular it would:

  1. Foster a regional project dedicated to a particular vision of international law that whilst not identical to Australia’s own position is broadly compatible with national interest and preferable to alternatives.
  2. Help provide strategic reassurance to key national partners in an age where a rising China is increasingly impinging on key principles of international law and where faith in the US interest and ability to protect a rules-based order is in decline.
  3. Serve as a clear single about Australia’s wish to proactively shape its future in ways that defend its core interests. The alternative may well be to anguish about American decline with little organised response to the consequences of that decline.

This reimagining has costs, which would require careful management to mitigate as far as possible. In particular:

  1. Relations with the US should not be proactively jettisoned through engaging ASEAN more fully. Note that many ASEAN members also look upon a US-led international order as of key importance.
  2. ASEAN will never be a defender of all the values that Australia seeks to promote. Its engagement with human rights and democracy will always be weaker than we would like. Australia will need to carefully distinguish core interest from other desires, and will need to manage public expectation about ASEAN.

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