Re-engaging in the politics of being a good neighbour

By Allan Gyngell, President, Australian Institute of International Affairs

In a new op-ed adapted from his Australian Foreign Affairs essay 'Testing Grounds', Allan Gyngell writes Australia must find an inclusive foreign policy language that deepens our conversations with our neighbours.

Southeast Asia is where Australia first learned the difficult lessons of managing intimate relationships with countries and cultures unlike our own. We had to balance our concern with human rights in Suharto’s Indonesia with our interest in stable economic growth and regional peace. We had to weigh our horror at the millions of deaths in the Khmer Rouge’s genocide with the objective of ending further death and conflict in Cambodia.

But over recent years, Southeast Asia has become less central to Australian foreign policy. As the response to China became the central focus of Australian foreign policy, new priorities — the elevation of the Quad grouping, the defence partnership of AUKUS and, later, the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — inevitably distanced it from Southeast Asia. The language of Australian foreign policy changed too. The Indo-Pacific replaced the Asia-Pacific.

Southeast Asia was not forgotten, but by 2022 it had been sidelined. With the Coalition’s cuts to the aid budget after 2014, and then a refocusing of the development assistance program on the South Pacific in an effort to preserve “our patch” from Chinese influence, Australian aid to Southeast Asia declined sharply.

The region today feels less familiar to many Australians (apart from the 1.2 million or so Southeast Asian Australians) than it did in the 1960s and ’70s.

Geopolitically, some Southeast Asian states are American allies. Some, like Cambodia, are close to China. But all of them have a deep interest in China’s capacity through markets, investment and expertise to contribute to their development, while avoiding Beijing’s control and keeping the region conflict-free.

The desire to keep outside powers from direct confrontation in the region long predates the latest round of China-US competition. In the words of Indonesian scholar Evan Laksmana: “In Asia, hierarchy, rather than power balance, has historically been the structure of regional order … Regional countries will continue … engaging both sides and hedging their bets.”

So if Australia’s primary strategic objective in Southeast Asia is to build coalitions against China, it will be disappointed. ASEAN announced a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with China just days after signing a similar agreement with Australia. And if the countries of the region judge that Australia has no independent ability to interact with Beijing, it will be less relevant to them.

After its election, the Albanese government declared that the goal of “deepening engagement with Southeast Asia” was one of its policy priorities. What can the basis of Australia’s relationship with Southeast Asia be in this period of change? Our goals are clear. We want a region that remains free of tension (thereby keeping tension away from Australia). We want independent neighbours who are not vulnerable to external coercion. We want an integrated, prosperous regional economy, open to Australian trade and investment. We want partners who share our interests in a predictable world order in which rules governing trade, communications, the global environment, health and warfare are mutually negotiated and consistently followed.

With the Ukraine war, terms such as “the West” and “the free world”, last heard widely during the Cold War, have become part of common rhetoric again.

But the values of Western liberalism cannot be the basis for Australia’s engagement with Southeast Asia. None of the states of the region identifies as a liberal democracy and there is not much point in talking to Indonesia or Thailand as fellow members of “the West”. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, all the ASEAN states lie somewhere on a spectrum between “Flawed Democracies” and “Authoritarian States”. Vietnam is run by a Communist Party just as committed to preserving the monopoly of power as its Chinese counterpart. Brunei is an autocracy under the control of a hereditary monarch.

That means Australia must find an inclusive foreign policy language that deepens our conversations with our neighbours. This does not require us to deny the values of our democratic system or the realities of our US alliance. As former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Peter Varghese puts it: “(Values) should define who we are, not what we insist others become.”

In the toolbox of statecraft there are broadly three ways to apply influence on other countries. You can use inducement to buy an outcome, you can apply coercion to force it, or you can persuade the other side by force of argument and appeals to mutual interests. In Southeast Asia, Australia is not rich or powerful enough to utilise the first two. That leaves us with the task of persuasion.

Penny Wong, G20
Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong attends the Foreign Ministers' Meeting at the recent G20, Bali, Indonesia - July 8, 2022. Image credit: @SenatorWong, Twitter.

The first requirement is to understand Southeast Asia. How can we persuade our neighbours unless we know what is persuasive to them? Australia needs to be able to draw upon a strong body of diplomats, officials and military officers who know the various countries of Southeast Asia, speak their languages and have developed relationships over time with its decision-makers. That goes for our political leaders as well. We need more politicians whose WhatsApp and Signal contact lists span the region, and they need to be encouraged to keep turning up in Southeast Asian capitals. As Susannah Patton from the Lowy Institute has pointed out, it has been 20 years and more since the last bilateral visits by Australian prime ministers to Thailand and The Philippines.

Backing up such frontline operational expertise, Australia also must ensure that the foundational research and analytical capabilities of our universities and think tanks are the best in the world at dealing with Southeast Asia. We need to teach its history, languages and cultures, modern as well as ancient. That requires continued investment.

The second requirement is to accept that our ability to persuade regional governments and shape outcomes requires Australia to engage them on issues of importance to them, not just us. For all the ASEAN states, development remains a primary goal. According to the Asian Development Bank, 24 million people in Southeast Asia were still subsisting on less than $US1.90 a day in 2021.

Areas on which we can co-operate (and already are co-operating) include climate change, health, renewable energy, and vocational and technical education. Most of the large Southeast Asian economies have moved beyond the sort of development assistance traditionally delivered by the Australian aid program. Our challenge is to find new ways of investing in economic partnerships with ASEAN countries.

The hard work of underpinning our economic relationships with stronger trade and investment ties is not something governments themselves can achieve. Exporters, importers and investors have to make their own decisions. But as we can see from the fact that Australia has more direct investment in New Zealand than in all 10 ASEAN states combined, familiarity and ease of operation are major issues for the business community. Government support, and even hand-holding, is essential.

The Australian Defence Force’s multigenerational efforts to develop personal and professional relationships with its ASEAN counterparts have paid dividends many times over, as any Australian Southeast Asia ambassador in the region will acknowledge. In the 21st century, however, Australia’s defence focus has been overwhelmingly on support for and from the US alliance, and more recently on the Five Eyes partnership and AUKUS. To deal most effectively with Southeast Asia, Australia must be willing to step beyond its comfort zone.

Paul Keating’s 1996 Agreement on Maintaining Security with Indonesia stands, in its objectives and language, as an example of how Australia might reinforce defence relationships with regional countries, by focusing on our mutual needs to maintain an autonomous security capability in the region rather than on geo¬strategic competition. That agreement was a victim of the bilateral strains during the East Timor independence struggle, but it was supported by both sides of Australian politics when it was announced.

In a hard world of military rivalry and conflict, the phrase “people-to-people relations” sounds trifling. But as the experience of the Australian Defence Force shows, investment in networks and contacts pays valuable practical dividends. Many of Indonesia’s most eminent economists and economic decision-makers have obtained their PhDs through a decades-long effort by the Australian National University’s Indonesia Project to build academic links. Working in the other direction, projects such as the New Colombo Plan are helping young Australians experience Southeast Asia and build ties with a new generation of its leaders. Whatever the area, from music to farming, deeper community links will be a long-lasting asset for Australia, helping to shape common understandings of our future.

A final requirement is to have the architecture in place to enable us to engage effectively with the region. Thanks to the good work of different governments over many decades, Australia has a head start here. With our main partners, and with ASEAN as an institution, we have regular, well-tested forums and processes at officials’, ministerial and prime ministerial levels. If Australia has the ideas, the opportunities to take them forward are there.

A new international order will emerge from the current turmoil, but its elements might be unclear for years. Its shape will depend primarily on whether the US can resolve its internal political divisions and carry forward a grand strategy that is both principled and consistent through changing administrations, and whether China concludes that its interests are best served by working cooperatively within a comprehensive global system.

Southeast Asia, Australia’s near abroad, will never present us with easy options. But it will be the place Australian foreign policy can influence outcomes more consequentially than anywhere else in the world, including the South Pacific. The way our policymakers shape and manage these relationships, and their success or failure in working with regional partners to fashion purposeful and coherent responses to unprecedented global challenges, will be the great test of Australian foreign policy in the challenging times ahead.

Allan Gyngell is the former head of the Office of National Assessments and current president of Australian Institute of International Affairs.

Banner image: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Indonesian President Joko Widodo deliver press conference from presidential palace, Bogor, Indonesia - June 6, 2022. Credit: PM Anthony Albanese, Facebook.

A version of this article originally appeared on The Australian on July 16, 2022. This is an edited extract of the essay 'Testing Grounds', in Australian Foreign Affairs, out now.