ASEAN is back, and that is good news for Australia
Originally published in the Australian Financial Review on 18 March 2018.

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Over the past week Australia has been building engagement with the neighbours. The ASEAN-Australia Special Summit was the climax, but the program of events went far wider. This is precisely the type of work Australia has to undertake with the decline of US influence in Asia – and it has been receiving bipartisan support. We Australians are fortunate to have a prime minister with genuine diplomatic skill – but in the excitement some Australian commentary has lacked his cool.

The summit restores ASEAN’s centrality in Australian foreign policy. Although Australia was ASEAN’s first Dialogue Partner (in 1974), Australia had neglected it in recent years, preoccupied with the US alliance and the rise of China. President Obama then boosted his relations with the region and in Australia the argument was made – in an Asialink report of 2012, endorsed by two former foreign ministers – that the reaffirmation of ASEAN relations was fundamental to a comprehensive Asia strategy. Geographic proximity and the size of Australia’s trade with ASEAN are vital factors; effective relations with ASEAN also boost Australia’s influence in both Washington and Beijing.

In 2013, Australia appointed a resident Ambassador to ASEAN and in 2014 a strategic partnership was forged. The following year Australia commenced Biennial Leaders’ Summits, and then invited all the ASEAN leaders to Sydney. Last week’s program of events was impressive. A business summit, a counter-terrorism conference, a hard-hitting track 2 dialogue, a workshop on the future of the ASEAN Regional Forum among many others. Australia, like ASEAN itself, has a talent for meetings, and we are probably at our best when discussing practical issues.

These events have not all been government-run. Australian business and other community organisations, many Australian universities have harnessed their networks to bring key ASEAN leaders to Australia. These included Malaysia’s Deputy King, the eloquent Sultan Nazrin of Perak and business figures such as Chua Sock Koong of Singapore Telecommunications and Tony Fernandes of AirAsia. Discussions have often been constructive – with a new memorandum promoting co-operation against international terrorism, a collaborative plan to develop international digital trade standards, and a range of initiatives regarding infrastructure, sustainability, education and financial regulation.

A strength of the week was the opportunity for real dialogue – often informally, between meetings – and this has been sobering. In our new-found enthusiasm Australia has talked of being ASEAN’s “leading partner”, and even of joining ASEAN. Prime Minister Turnbull has struck the right tone insisting that “ASEAN matters are matters for ASEAN” and that Australia respects the way ASEAN “reaches its own conclusions”.

Australia has much in common with ASEAN countries – but there are also important differences in both objectives and style. Two decades ago foreign minister Gareth Evans predicted the steady advance of liberal principles in the Asian region. Looking across ASEAN, this has not occurred, and our own liberalism can tend to isolate Australia. But there has been a great advance in prosperity in ASEAN, and an enhanced concern for good government. South-East Asians are more confident, and often see themselves progressing more rapidly than Australia. Today Australia’s GDP is much smaller vis-a-vis the ASEAN countries than it was in the ’70s and ’80s, and Australia’s trade with ASEAN is outstripped by Korea.

Some Australian commentators have pointed to ASEAN weaknesses – for instance, in handling the Rohingya crisis, trans-boundary haze pollution and the contest in the South China Sea. But ASEAN observers have their own questions about Australian capacities – and see that Australia may need friends in a post-America world.

Discussion in the last week brings reinforces that Australia cannot assume ASEAN takes the same approach to China as we have done. Many in South-East Asia welcome co-operation with China, and acknowledge its coming primacy in the region. They reject the accusation of appeasement, pointing out that in many areas Chinese initiatives have been politely resisted. As Singapore’s Prime Minister explained, there is also a feeling that the situation in the South China Sea has “cooled down somewhat” over the last year.

Some in Australia have suggested that ASEAN could support the pro-democracy Quadrilateral, bringing Australia together with the United States, Japan and India. This seems unlikely, given ASEAN’s long-term acceptance of ideological plurality and its desire to avoid taking sides in major-power confrontations.

Even in promoting the concept of the “Indo-Pacific” Australia will need to assure ASEAN that China’s fears are unfounded. The Indians faced ASEAN resistance on this front last January at their summit and the scepticism was evident last week.

Australia’s stress on the importance of a ‘rules-based international order’ can win more support – especially if we agree not to add the adjective ‘liberal’, and continue to express respect for ASEAN’s contribution to that order. Right back to the foundation of the United Nations, Australia has demonstrated a capacity for moving among contending states, negotiating international rules.

In the task of persuasion, Australians are often frustrated by ASEAN methods. The stress on consensus decision-making and the preoccupation with building unity; the option of engaging rather than penalising (or sanctions), the “preference for Pacific and consultative approaches to peace-building, rather than adversarial approaches” (as Sultan Nazrin put it); the aspiration to neutrality and willingness to play a long game – in all these areas the contrast with Australia is clear.

Yet ASEAN has had real success – not only in the creation of a prosperous and remarkably peaceful region, but also in bringing China, Japan, India and the United States together to discuss significant issues and develop habits of cooperation. At this point no other country or organisation is equipped to take ASEAN’s place. Australia – by good fortune – has a long record working with South-East Asia and this Summit has offered the opportunity to lift Australia’s profile once more.

The US alliance was described recently as “Australia’s strategic Plan A but also Plan B, C and D”. This summit reveals a more imaginative strategy – and if Australia is to avoid becoming a lonely country in a less America-dominant Asia then our government is on the right track.

(This article has been edited to suit our international audience with the permission of the author.)

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