Asean now 'really' matters to Australia

Asean now 'really' matters to Australia

The Albanese government has repeatedly declared that Asean matters to Australia. In the past, such an assertion often drew a quick response, with "really?" being the most common reply. Today, that is no longer the case. Asean "really" does matter to Australia. However, whether Australia matters to Asean remains to be seen.

The upcoming three-day special Asean-Australia summit in Melbourne from March 4-6 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their relations will be a litmus test of how ties will proceed over the next two decades. Nine Asean leaders will attend the event, including Timor Leste's Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. It must be noted that Myanmar's junta leader, Min Aung Hlaing, has not been invited.

Asean at 57 is a different ballgame for Australia. The regional bloc has today become a centre of Indo-Pacific strategic competition and cooperation. The northern neighbour also possesses a huge marketplace, encompassing a community of 672 million, mainly young and vibrant people, which can be reached from Down Under within hours.

In the past, Southeast Asia was composed of three different entities -- non-communist Asean, the former Indochinese states, and isolated Myanmar. Today, Asean encompasses the whole of mainland and maritime Southeast Asia, including soon Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea. Dili will soon join Asean as its 11th member, probably next year, with Asean leaders agreeing in principle to admit the region's youngest democracy in 2022. Port Moresby has been the bloc's longest observer since 1986 and has expressed its intention to join Asean, but there has not been any positive feedback.

The Asean-Australia partnership got a big boost when Canberra was accorded a comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP) in 2021. Therefore, it must develop a long-term strategic action plan to guide its cooperation in all spectrums. In November 2022, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the appointment of Nicholas Moore as a Special Envoy for Southeast Asia, which was welcomed by Asean leaders, as it indicated Australia's gravitas towards the region after a long period of distraction here and there -- in the Pacific and North America et al. Mr Moore's task was to prepare his country's economic strategies for Southeast Asia up to 2040, and he has authored a report which will be discussed in Melbourne.

Australia has been acknowledging Southeast Asia as an area of golden opportunity, which it can help shape and, at the same time, benefit from increased cooperation. Lest we forget, Australia is the bloc's first dialogue partner. Somehow, Canberra could not maximise such engagement with Asean -- its recalcitrance to go all out for Asean is due mainly to its liberal norms and values, which have brought controversy and disruption to ties in the past. Now, Australia is approaching Asean in more realistic and practical ways, promoting governance and civic engagements in subtle forms, which has yielded more constructive results.

Potentially, Asean could be the world's No.4 largest economy in the future, and Australia knows the time has come to consolidate its position in the region. The two-way trade volume in recent years between the two sides is larger than the US and Japan. Otherwise, it will be too late to catch up with the bloc amid the swift winds of change in the global geopolitical and geoeconomic environment.

Mr Moore's report, "Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040", examines 10 priority sectors -- agriculture and food, resources, green energy transition, infrastructure, education and skills, visitor economy, healthcare, digital economy, professional and financial services, and creative industries. These are essential areas that Asean constantly demands from the other five CSP partners -- China, Japan, the US and India.

His report outlines holistically how Australia can strengthen and deepen ties to promote more trade and investment with Asean. Some of its 75 recommendations might seem overly optimistic, but they are deliverable if both Australia and Asean work closely together.

Specifically, the report highlights raising awareness, removing blockages, building capacity, and deepening investment between Australia and countries in Southeast Asia. Each of these categories contains useful actions. For instance, in the section on raising awareness, Mr Moore recommends Australia should consider developing a whole-of-nation plan to strengthen Southeast Asia literacy in Australian business, government, the education and training system, and the community.

In removing blockages, Mr Moore's report urges the government to implement a migration strategy and associated reforms to improve the visa system and thus facilitate mobility. For the region's capacity building, Mr Moore calls on increased opportunities for professional exchanges and internships between public and private sectors at the company or organisation level.

In addition, the government should encourage universities and vocational education providers to offer work-integrated learning internships as part of course offerings to Southeast Asian students. All in all, the taste of the pudding is in the eating.

Beyond the bread-and-butter issues, Australian and Asean leaders will use the summit to discuss current regional and international issues that impact peace and stability in the region and the world.

Both sides are aware that different views and approaches prevail among the regional countries toward key strategic issues, including US-China rivalry, Quad, Aukus, Russia-Ukraine, Israel-Palestine, the Korean Peninsula, South China Sea, and of course, Myanmar, among others.

One caveat is in order. As a bloc, Asean has the world's most diverse political, economic, and religious backgrounds. The bloc's ability and ethos to cooperate under the principle of non-interference and consensus must be respected. Albeit slow, Asean's decision-making processes are pacifist and non-hegemonic and produce results. An example was that of Asean and Australia working closely together for nearly two decades in ending the Cambodian conflict, overcoming their differences for a larger purpose that would guarantee stability and prosperity in the region.

As a close US ally, Australia can constructively serve as a bridge between Asean and the US, something at which Japan has excelled. The best way for the Albanese government to start is to help the bloc operationalise the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), which does not target any third country.

Canberra's unwavering support of AOIP priorities is pivotal as it would preserve and strengthen Asean centrality and relevance. It would also bolster Australia's regional profile by adopting strong Asean-oriented approaches. The previous Australian government's forceful support of Washington's stances on key regional and global issues caused uneasiness around the region as they risked further splitting Asean and Australia ties. Asean will remain cohesive despite its members' different views.

After the Melbourne summit, the Asean-Australia summit will be institutionalised and held annually. Their leaders will have ample opportunity to further discuss their mutual interests and challenges and beef up their partnership. Australia can demonstrate clearly that it matters to Asean.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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