Appearing in Financial Review, Defence feature, 13 September 2017
Australia should focus on ASEAN ties
Australia needs to return its regional focus to the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, according to a new paper from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific. The paper Smaller, but enmeshed by Professor Tony Milner and Adjunct Associate Professor Ron Huisken calls for Australia to make ASEAN and southeast Asia its priority for economic, political and security cooperation.
“We have had a long association with ASEAN but in the past decade we have let it drift as we focused more on the China-US dynamic,” said Professor Huisken. “There have been some positive steps in the past few years, such as the agreement to hold biennial ASEAN-Australia Leaders’ Summits and the ‘special summit’ planned for 2018. But there is still much to do.”
ASEAN is growing in economic and political weight. As a trading partner, southeast Asia is more important to Australia than Japan or the US. In 2015 over a million people from ASEAN countries visited Australia, and almost three million Australians travelled in the other direction. For a number of countries in the region, Australia is the leading provider of Western tertiary education.
“These are good indicators but they do not connect to the Australian national imagination or the ASEAN regional imagination. It has not been made clear to the public that Australia must recognise how important the ASEAN region will be to the country’s future – so important, in fact, that Australia should strive to make consultation and cooperation instinctive for both sides,” say the authors.
“Leader-to-leader optics will always be helpful. Images of the Australian Prime Minister strolling through a market place with the Indonesian President, or standing next to the Malaysian leader, cooperating in the search for a lost airliner, do more than words to build solid, deep relations at the cultural level.”
Professor Huisken points to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Singapore and Australia as a crucial step. It was signed on 29 June 2015, coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic relations. It effectively put Australia’s relations with Singapore on the same basis as its relations with New Zealand.
The need to improve relations is underlined by the relative deterioration of Australia’s position. ASEAN’s GDP is now more than US$2.5 trillion, approaching double that of Australia. South Korea has moved ahead of Australia as an investor in the region, and its trade with ASEAN is over double the size of Australia’s.
There is a similar story on the defence side. In 1988, Australia’s military spending was greater than that of all the ASEAN countries. It also held capability, technology and intelligence advantages. Now, ASEAN defence spending is about fifty per cent higher than Australia’s and the lead in capability is shrinking fast.
The good news is that there is increasing defence co-operation between Australia and ASEAN, ranging from joint naval exercises to pilot training. Professor Huisken believes this can be an important part of improved engagement. A solid security relationship is developing with Singapore, which has contracted to use bases in the Shoalwater Bay Training Area and Townsville Field Training Area. It will eventually be a large commitment, with up to 14,000 Singapore personnel training for up to 18 weeks a year by 2021.
In another significant move, the Australian Government recently announced that the Philippines Government has accepted an Australian offer of two AP-3C Orion aircraft to provide surveillance support to the armed forces of the Philippines in the fight against groups linked to Islamic State in Mindanao province. The arrangement comes under the Defence Cooperation Program with the Philippines, which includes counter-terrorism activities.
“In an important respect, the growth and development of the ASEAN region constitute an opportunity for Australia,” says Professor Huisken. “Forty years ago Australia was a relatively bigger player. Now there is more of a balance, and that is reflected in the easier sense of partnership in defence issues.
“But to keep and build that emerging sense of partnership there has to be change of language, amongst other things. We need to stop talking about southeast Asia as ‘our backyard’. And it is also counterproductive to use terms like ‘Asia Pacific’ and the ‘Indo-Pacific’. These constructions may have appeal for Australians but they have little value in the region. The reality is that Australia gets some bad press in southeast Asia, and the use of terms that are construed as patronising is one of the reasons.”
Professor Huisken sees a window of opportunity, with ASEAN wary of Chinese ambitions in the region and the uncertainties about the US presence. Deeper Australian engagement with ASEAN and support for its initiatives could add an important element of certainty for both sides.
“Australia’s support for ASEAN needs to be unambiguous and public,” he says. “We have important blocks in place, and now we have to take it forward.”