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ASEAN-Australia relations: Converging or competing visions of regionalism

  • Shane Preuss
    Shane Preuss

    Graduate of the Master of International Relations program at the University of Melbourne

Yogyakarta | Fri, January 13, 2017 | 01:06 pm
ASEAN-Australia relations: Converging or competing visions of regionalism Old map of Southeast Asia (Shutterstock/File)

Last year was a significant year for Australia-ASEAN relations.

The First ASEAN-Australia Biennial Summit was held on Sept. 7, 2016 in Vientiane, Laos. At the summit, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull highlighted the importance of the strategic partnership between his country and the regional body, focusing on opportunities for economic partnerships and the common security challenge, “that demands a united response [to] terrorism.” Beyond this, Australia also promoted its role as a peace broker as a non-claimant in the South China Sea. The summit could be seen as a major success for Australia-ASEAN diplomatic relations as Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong offered a significant compliment, when he said Australia “understands” ASEAN and its developmental needs. The summit closed with Turnbull proposing a special ASEAN-Australia Leaders' Summit in 2018. This invitation was quickly followed by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s offer to host the ASEAN leaders summit in 2018, which, if accepted, would be the first summit held outside of a current ASEAN member state.

These diplomatic developments reflect increasing inter-linkages between Australia and ASEAN on economic, cultural, academic and security fronts. These include the signing of the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA) in 2009 and the development of Australia’s New Colombo Plan initiative to promote people-to-people exchanges by supporting Australian students to study and undertake work-based placements in ASEAN member states. Participants of the ASEAN-Australia Summit also agreed to update the 2004 Joint Declaration for Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism. 2014 also saw the celebration of Australia’s 40th year as a dialogue partner of ASEAN.

These developments raise the question, what is Australia’s place in the region?

ASEAN has positioned itself as the driver of East Asian regionalism. The organization’s convening power and centrality to regional processes is reflected in fora, such as ASEAN + 3, the East Asia Forum and ASEAN Regional Forum, which brings together a number of states well beyond its 10 members, to shape the evolving political, strategic and economic architecture of the region.

ASEAN has also shown a propensity for expansion. The initial five members has expanded to the present 10, while observer status is held by Papua New Guinea (since 1976) and Timor Leste ( 2002 ). Fiji’s request for observer status also received support from former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Bangladesh has received support from Laos.

Culturally and politically, Australia has been traditionally tied to the Anglosphere, while the country’s security policy has remained one of dependence, first on the United Kingdom and then on the United States. Australia’s reorientation towards Asia-Pacific was perhaps first evidenced when Australia became ASEAN’s first dialogue partner in 1974. Since then Australia has been invited to attend and participate at the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus (ADMM+).

As Australia engages with the region, however, it does so from a liminal position between the “West” and “Asia”. Australia has displayed an ambivalent position toward Southeast Asian regionalism and “Asian” regional identity and ASEAN states have reciprocated this ambivalence regarding Australia’s place within the region.

Former Malaysian Premier Abdullah Badawi expressed Australia’s outsider status at the first East Asia Summit when he remarked that Australia and New Zealand would be second-class participants in Asia’s vision, with “ASEAN+3” to be the “driver” of integration. Badawi further commented that Australia’s participation at the Summit represented a convergence of “common interests” rather than “being members of the community.” Regarding a potential Australia application for ASEAN membership, Rodolfo Severino, a Philippine diplomat and secretary-general of ASEAN from 1998 to 2002, remarked that ASEAN’s likely response would be, “You’re not Southeast Asian.”

Australia’s ambivalent or marginal position toward and in “Asian” regionalism has led to the development of different, perhaps competing, visions of regional architecture.

Australia’s involvement in establishing APEC, which would come to include the US, could be seen as an attempt to dilute growth of East Asian regionalism. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also made a proposal for the creation of an Asia-Pacific Community by 2020, which would include the US, New Zealand, China and India focusing on security and trade. Ongoing debates in Australia have also seen a shift from defining the region as the “Asia-Pacific”, to the “Indo Pacific”. In 2014, during a speech about Australia’s “new aid policy and performance framework” Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, stated that Australia’s principal focus for aid allocation, “would now be on Australia’s region—‘the Indian Ocean Asia Pacific’.”

How can recent developments in Australia-ASEAN relations be interpreted against this backdrop? Is it evidence of deepening integration, or the development of a shared community? Or are ASEAN-Australia relations still mediated, purely, by a paradigm of shared interests and will Australia and ASEAN continue to have different, perhaps competing, visions of regionalism?


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The writer, a recent graduate of the Master of International Relations program at the University of Melbourne, Australia, is currently undertaking a research internship at the ASEAN Studies Centre at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta.

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