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ASEAN swoosh

ASEAN and Australia go to the summit

By Graeme Dobell

South-East Asia is where Australia’s geography collides with our future. And South-East Asia acts as the threshold for what Australia faces in the Asian century. The ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit in Sydney in March 2018 was the first on Australian soil. Yet it was a meeting based on a lot of shared history over ASEAN’s 50 years.

Australia has always thought ASEAN a good thing. The hard question, always, is what good Australia can do with ASEAN. The answers offered by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull played back to ASEAN its own rhetoric of ASEAN centrality in Asia, expressing Australia's commitment to being an all-weather partner:

Today is a historic day, as the leaders of ASEAN and Australia come together for the first time in Australia, working together here determining our commitment to the centrality of ASEAN and our commitment—commitment of Australia to ASEAN at the very heart of the stability, prosperity, security of our region. The meeting comes at a critical time for the region. The pace and scale of change is without any precedent in human history. Our vision is optimistic and born of ambition, it's for a neighbourhood that is defined by open markets and the free flow of goods, services, capital and ideas. Over the past 50 years, ASEAN has used its influence to defuse tension, build peace, encourage economic cooperation and support to maintain the rule of law. And we are fully committed to backing ASEAN as the strategic convenor of our region (Turnbull 2018aTurnbull, Malcolm. 2018a. “Opening Remarks at the ASEAN–Australia Special Summit Plenary Session.” Prime Minister of Australia, March 18.[Google Scholar]).

The summit communiqué, the Sydney Declaration, serves as both paper vision and wallpaper covering, stating what can be agreed and gliding over differences (“Joint Statement” 2018“Joint Statement of the ASEAN–Australia Special Summit: The Sydney Declaration.” 2018. March 18.[Google Scholar]). Much was easily agreed. The declaration of ‘a new era in the increasingly close ASEAN–Australia relationship’ is summit speak with a basis in fact. That closeness—what I’d call a growing ‘big fact’ of Australian diplomacy—is the ASEAN flavour of much of Australian foreign policy.

As an example, our policy on Myanmar over recent decades has been the ASEAN recipe with added Oz rhetorical sauce; it is no surprise, then, that the strongest public statement in Sydney on the Rohingya crisis was from Malaysia (“Malaysia’s Leader” 2018“Malaysia’s Leader Says Rohingya Not Just a Myanmar Issue.” 2018. Burma Times, March 17.[Google Scholar]).

The rhyming and chiming of ASEAN–Australia policy reflects the reality of the many headaches we share. The times are getting tougher and the region's most important middle-power grouping has much to discuss with its fellow middle power, Australia.

Among the areas of vigorous agreement are:

  • The signing of a memorandum on combating terrorism and violent extremism (“Combating Terrorism” 2018“Combating Terrorism and Violent Extremism.” 2018. March 17.[Google Scholar]).

  • Strong shared commitment to free and open markets, underlining ‘the critical importance of the rules-based multilateral trading system’ (“Joint Statement” 2018“Joint Statement of the ASEAN–Australia Special Summit: The Sydney Declaration.” 2018. March 18.[Google Scholar]). In the time of Trump, this is suddenly more than a motherhood statement. As Malcolm Turnbull (2018bTurnbull, Malcolm. 2018b. “Press Conference with Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore.” Prime Minister of Australia, March 18.[Google Scholar]) noted: ‘there were no protectionists around the ASEAN–Australia Special Summit table’. Just prior to the summit, Australia and four of the ASEAN states signed the minus version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (the remaining 11 Trans-Pacific Partnership countries minus the USA). Next, Australia, the ASEAN 10, plus China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand want to complete another deal this year: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

  • The South China Sea: Australia happily embraces and talks up ASEAN's effort to get a Code of Conduct with China (oh, that we all live long enough to see it). Australia can also do sharper talk on the South China Sea, as it does in the trilateral with Japan and the USA (“Australia–Japan–United States” 2017“Australia–Japan–United States Trilateral Strategic Dialogue: Joint Statement.” 2017. Manila, August 7.[Google Scholar]). When it comes to walking the walk, though, Australia tends to the ASEAN shuffle. In the words of the Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop (2018aBishop, Julie. 2018a. “ABC Insiders—Interview with Barrie Cassidy.” Minister for Foreign Affairs, March 18.[Google Scholar]), Australia rejects ‘any unilateral action that would create tensions and we want to ensure that freedom of over-flight and freedom of navigation in accordance with international law is maintained and the ASEANs all back that same position’. In the way the runes are read in Canberra, the foreign minister's abhorrence of any unilateral-tension-creating action includes the Australian Navy sailing closer than 12 miles to China's terra-formed sandcastles in the South China Sea.

The big beasts of Asia—the USA and China—were naturally absent from the Sydney Declaration. But the breaths of the big beasts and their tracks and their appetites were constantly present.

An ASEAN obsession embraced by Australian foreign policy is the ASEAN quest never to have to choose between the USA and China. Not so long ago, there was a significant chasm between ASEAN neutrality and Australia's alliance addiction; we are the nation proud to stand with our great and powerful friends. Today, the chasm shrinks or is defined away entirely. Australia, like ASEAN, never wants to have to choose. We share much—including what we dread.

The above is an extract from the article published in the 2018 Australian Journal of International Affairs. The full article is available here