Australia-ASEAN relations: Resetting the agenda between neighbours

By Nurliana Kamaruddin, Senior Lecturer, Asia-Europe Institute (AEI), University of Malaya,
and Imran Lum, Islamic Finance Advisor

Paying greater attention to cooperation with individual countries in Southeast Asia will assist Australia’s efforts to build relations with ASEAN, write Nurliana Kamaruddin and Imran Lum. But most importantly, Australia will need to demonstrate an independent course in its engagement with ASEAN leaders, not reiterate its position as a ‘lesser sheriff of the West’.

Last June, the Australian ambassador to ASEAN and the Secretary General of ASEAN signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the Australia for ASEAN Futures Initiative, which was meant to facilitate an increase in cooperation between Australia and the member nations of its neighbouring region. This progress in diplomatic relations between Australia and the regional organisation is a case of better late than never.

Despite being geographically close to Southeast Asia, Australia is arguably less engaged with the 10 member countries of ASEAN in comparison to other countries in East Asia or some former western colonial powers like the UK, Netherlands, France, and the US.

Australia was one of ASEAN’s earliest dialogue partners and has been an important diplomatic and economic partner for the region. However, it is also safe to say that Australia and ASEAN relations could (and should) be more robust than they are today. For example, despite geographic proximity and shared membership of both the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Australia’s trade is relatively underweight compared to ASEAN trade with the US and China, Japan and South Korea, and India and the EU.

In the midst of geopolitical upheaval and increasing global tension, Australia’s close relations with the US can be a tricky issue to navigate with ASEAN member states. The White House’s pursuit of its Indo-Pacific strategy has met with varying degrees of enthusiasm across Southeast Asia. Australia’s membership of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), coupled with its close alignment with the US, mean that for ASEAN member states Australia lacks an independent strategic vision for the Indo-Pacific.

In recent decades Australia’s moniker as “America’s Deputy Sheriff” has interfered with efforts to deepen Australia-ASEAN relations. Critics argue that Australia is likely to continue to pursue this role. Admittedly, the South China Sea issue is complex and there is no denying that China’s aggressive actions in the region are worrying. However, as ASEAN countries cultivate their own relationship with the US and China, many choose to remain neutral (or hedge) as a means of strategic insurance.

ASEAN, at the end of the day, is still deeply entangled with China, both economically and socially. Years of migration and trade between the countries dating back to the ancient kingdom and dynasties mean that China and Southeast Asian relations are highly unlikely to unravel. Expecting ASEAN countries to choose sides is a dismissal of the complex relationship ASEAN member countries have as small and middle-sized nations with the big powers of the world.

This can be seen in how the Quad and the AUKUS are perceived amongst the ASEAN member states. One of the main concerns is how the Quad impacts ASEAN centrality and whether AUKUS would lead to an accelerating arms race or even nuclearisation of the region. Although ASEAN has for the most part incorporated the term Indo-Pacific into its own rhetoric since the release of the ASEAN Indo-Pacific Outlook, there remains a staunch deviation from the Quad’s version as ASEAN’s focus remains on engagement and inclusive dialogue. Still, the increasing institutionalisation of the Quad and the various Indo-Pacific concepts has also encouraged increased acceptance of them by ASEAN countries as the agenda of these initiatives shifts towards ASEAN’s more immediate and practical concerns (i.e., development and recovery after the pandemic). That said, ASEAN-Australia relations can and should be enhanced independently of these developments.

Foreign policy aside, awareness and interest in Southeast Asia at the local level also need to be cultivated. Australia is a diverse melting pot of cultures made up not only of the indigenous first nations people but also a large immigrant population. Trade relationships with Southeast Asia were pioneered by the Yolŋu indigenous community of Arnhem land who traded with the Makassar people of Southeast Asia and Australia needs to reignite this historic outlook on the region. Australia also can benefit from the connections and knowledge of the region that comes with migrants that have Southeast Asian ancestry. According to the 2021 Census of Population and Housing, there are over a million Australian residents and nationals of Southeast Asian ethnicities. Despite a growing Asian population in Australia (17.4 percent have Asian ancestry; 4.5 percent Southeast Asian), the general populace of the country remains largely uninformed or uninterested in its close neighbours. For example, the number of exchange students coming to ASEAN countries remains low despite high numbers of students from ASEAN countries studying abroad or participating in exchange programmes in Australia.

Additionally, for a country so close to the region one should imagine that the Australian business sector would have long taken a more significant interest in the booming Southeast Asian market. In 2019, Australia’s outbound investment to ASEAN was a little over half the investment that went to NZ, suggesting a lot of room for growth. It is only recently that trade with ASEAN countries has been growing, but with ASEAN accounting for 13 percent share of total two-way trade with Australia it ranked only behind China in 2019-20.

In general, ASEAN welcomes any engagement and effort to enhance cooperation. Anthony Albanese’s administration has made positive steps in resetting its relationship with the region. The appointment of Penny Wong as Minister for Foreign Affairs for example brought about a lot a good will from ASEAN countries. What’s important is that this commitment and effort remains consistent especially with the stagnation that has taken place after Malcolm Turnbull’s administration. Increased cooperation with individual countries would positively contribute to the current government’s effort to rebuild its relations with the region. And more importantly, Australia needs to set an independent course in its engagement with ASEAN leaders, not reiterate its position as the lesser sheriff of the West.

Dr Nurliana Kamaruddin is Deputy Executive Director (Academic and Student Affairs) at the Asia-Europe Institute, Universiti Malaya where she specializes in international security and development cooperation.

Dr Imran Lum is a Director of Islamic Finance at a major Australian bank and a former Board Member of the Australia-ASEAN Council, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.