Think Again about ASEAN

By Professor Tony Milner

With the government's White Paper on 'Australia in the Asian Century' imminent, ANTHONY MILNER argues Australia must focus on more than our US alliance and China. We have never been a mere 'deputy sheriff' and this needs to be made especially clear today. Closer identification with ASEAN can gain Australia more clout in Washington and Beijing, and probably New Delhi.

Australia is too often narrowly defined as a US ally. Let there be no doubt, the tag ‘Deputy Sheriff’ is potent and damaging in Asia. It suggests (quite falsely) that we allow our national interests to be submerged in the United States global agenda. Such an image will not do, especially in the ‘Asian Century’.

We cannot keep talking of a new world and yet take for granted that the old arrangements will survive. Much American declinist comment is exaggerated, but the relative reduction in United States weight in the world is undeniable. Our government speaks of a ‘dramatic shift of economic power and, as a result, strategic weight to Asia’ – but many assume that the United States alliance must remain (in former prime minister Rudd’s words of 2008) the ‘strategic bedrock of our foreign and security policy’. Seventy years ago we adapted to a shift of power – recognizing the decline of the British empire, establishing a new alliance. How do we today supplement the United States dependence? Where do we turn? It may be best to think again about ASEAN – the ten Southeast Asian countries that are our nearest Asian neighbours.

To broaden our bedrock we have to look somewhere in the Asian region. One option is to strengthen relations with other regional countries close to the United States. We have a long record of cooperation with Japan, but distrust between Japan and China makes a sharp upgrading of Australia-Japan relations cause for suspicion, especially when there is a security dimension. Antagonising China, it is fair to assume, is not an ideal starting point for reinforcing our regional relations.

The rapidly growing India has been moving toward the United States, and a recent United States/India/Australia collaborative report has argued for reinforcing our India relations. But again, India-China rivalry will shape a Chinese response. The need
for care in handling regional alliances was demonstrated in 2006/2007 when a ‘quadrilateral initiative’ between Australia, Japan, India and the US was mooted, and joint naval exercises carried out in the Bay of Bengal. The Chinese foreign ministry approached each of the governments involved, demanding an explanation.

ASEAN may well be the answer – ASEAN the regional organization, and as a code for Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the other Southeast Asian countries that are our nearest Asian neighbours. China and India have tended to eclipse ASEAN in Australian thinking. Yet ASEAN is a significant region – a combined population of 613 million (India has just under 1.2 billion) and a total GDP of US$2.1 trillion (India’s is US$1.8 trillion). At times over the last decade ASEAN has been an even bigger trading partner for Australia than China.

We might refine our international persona, projecting ourselves not just as the American ally, but also as the country deeply engaged with ASEAN. The ASEAN states, to be sure, have presented challenges for Australia. There have been issues over people smuggling, terrorism, drug running, cattle slaughter and business ethics. We have been involved in military actions in more than half of the region. But ASEAN is also the region we know best. The disagreements themselves have deepened our engagement. Apart from our trading connection (especially in services industries) we have long-term military collaboration with several ASEAN countries and counter- terrorism agreements with most of them; our Federal Police are based all over the region and work closely with local forces. Australia was the ASEAN organization’s first Dialogue Partner – meeting with the then five states in Canberra in 1974 – and at times our diplomatic cooperation with Indonesia has been outstanding. One example is the way we worked together to overcome the Cambodian crisis of the early 1990s. In Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam we are the leading providers of Western education, and there are more ASEAN students in Australia than in the United States.

In all these areas and more, Australia interacts in concrete ways with the ASEAN region – yet it must be said that ASEAN does not have a high profile in Australia, particularly in contrast to the United States, China, or India. Most Australians would not see ASEAN as critical to our geopolitical future, and ASEAN leaders seem to know this.

Acting more closely alongside ASEAN would not necessarily provoke China. Tensions (including military action) have occurred over recent years between some Southeast Asian countries and China – Vietnam, the Philippines – but in general ASEAN countries have been skilful in handling the Middle Kingdom. China may feel relatively comfortable in Southeast Asia partly because of its superior position in the regional hierarchy of the past. In modern times, in the difficult period following the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, the Chinese leadership was grateful for a degree of Southeast Asian sympathy and was subsequently active in courting the region – including during the Asian Financial Crisis (1997–8).

China has also been strongly supportive of ASEAN’s leadership building Asian regional architecture. Although there is a wariness of China in Southeast Asia today, China knows it faces there nothing like the suspicion that operates in Japan, or even India.

The fact that ASEAN is a leader in region building enhances its attractiveness. It leads the security institution, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) (1994); it linked up with China, Japan and South Korea in 1997 to establish ASEAN Plus Three (APT), then there was the East Asia Summit (EAS) (2007) and, most recently, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) (2010). ASEAN also forged links with the EU through the ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) (1996). True, ASEAN is prominent partly because a claim to regional leadership from China or Japan would be seen as provocative; but ASEAN diplomatic skills have also been important (including in developing a code of principles and norms to underpin regional cooperation). Working with ASEAN helps Australia to enhance
its own influence in the emerging regional architecture – and in the wider region.

Closer identification with ASEAN can gain Australia more clout in Washington and Beijing, and probably New Delhi. We want influence in the important matter of how United States-China relations develop. When we reinforce our ASEAN engagement (which our best leaders have done from time to time) it helps project Australia as a collaborator in Asian affairs – and counters our image as an outsider, somewhat at odds with our region. Projecting Australia as working with ASEAN, as well as the United States, could even prove reassuring for the Australian community – anxious, as it has been about the challenge ‘Asia’, the task of dealing with values and aspirations that sometimes seem to differ greatly from our own. Perhaps ironically, a highly effective ASEAN relationship gives Australia more to contribute to our United States alliance.
Other nations seek to strengthen ASEAN relations right now. Japan has long been a major investor and aid-donor – and last year announced a 2 trillion yen aid package for “development projects to strengthen regional integration”. In the case of Korea, trade has increased greatly, government ministers are making more frequent visits, an ASEAN-Korea FTA was signed (2006) and there is far more Korean than Australian investment in the region. The United States agreement to join the EAS in 2011 conveyed America’s acceptance that ASEAN is a “fulcrum for the region’s emerging regional architecture”, to quote Secretary of State Clinton.

Australia has an advantage based on our long experience in the region, as well as because of current indications that ASEAN would welcome closer engagement. This was certainly the message gained in a series of consultations conducted by Asialink over the last year. ASEAN countries are hedging with respect to China – keeping open their options, seeking to maintain elbow room. They have also been wary
of a possible United States hegemony. Australia is considered a relatively low- risk hedging option. We are not viewed as specifically anti-China – nor do ASEAN representatives see China as directly hostile toward Australia. ASEAN wants more Australian investment to help balance Chinese investment. The region values our agricultural and resources industries, and the help we’ve given to the poorer ASEAN countries under the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (AANZFTA). ASEAN leaders see the usefulness of having Australia as an ally in the different regional institutions they lead. They see that ASEAN and Australia together – combining our very different strengths – might gain more clout with the larger regional powers. They share our interest in modulating growing rivalry between the United States and China – and here Australia’s close United States connection is seen to bring advantages.

ASEAN perspectives on Australia in the consultative process were surprisingly warm, considering our disputes over the years. Australia (according to an influential young Vietnamese) is “more ready than the United States to listen to Asia”. Another view was that Australia is “less intrusive, less likely to dictate, than the United States”. As a long-term Thai commentator saw things, the United States – unlike Australia – has not been “indigenized with the region.” Random and elite viewpoints, it is true, but they chime with a recent observation from ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan that “Australia has identified with us more and more ... it is warm and cordial, much less distant now, no longer viewing itself as a European country stranded in the Pacific.”

Criticism of Australia focuses on the ‘deputy sheriff’ label. Modify your narrative, is the advice. At times the ‘deputy’ term has “seemed to represent the whole image of Australia, especially in its relations with ASEAN”. The United States alliance is often an Australian asset, but the consultations process heard that the impression that we allow our individuality to be subsumed within the American global power makes us less influential in regional terms (and presumably less useful to the United States). The ASEAN advice makes sense. It is not being urged that we try to become Southeast Asian, or to join ASEAN, but that we project Australia as a country that is close to ASEAN – collaborating, consulting, arguing at times, but a reliable partner with a long track record in Southeast Asia. Regional meetings provide superb opportunities to develop such a new narrative, supplementing Australia’s international personality as a close American ally. Some of our diplomats might say we are already on this track – but narrative-making is a task for political leadership.

Current ASEAN goodwill offers the Australian leadership an opportunity – the chance to develop a strategy for deepening our Asian engagement without merely exacerbating current regional tensions; a strategy that has the potential as well to reassure an Australian public still troubled by the phrase ‘Asian century’. Closer, and highly visible, collaboration with the ASEAN region – supplementing our United States alliance – could help Australia deal with the China (and broader Asian) challenges that increasingly dominate our media. It would add to our ‘strategic bedrock’.

An excerpt from this essay was published in The Australian on 17 July 2012.

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Renuka Rajadurai

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