Positioning Australia in the Asian Century – The ASEAN option

Anthony Milner looks at the regional benefits for Australia in establishing greater links with ASEAN.

We keep talking of an ‘Asian century’ and yet take for granted that the old options and old arrangements will survive.
We can and should strengthen relations with Asian countries close to the United States. We are already close to Japan, but tightening defence ties will deepen Chinese suspicions − not an ideal starting point for reinforcing our regional relations. India has moved toward the United States, and has its own issues with China, but sees itself as a “stand-alone” power.
The answer may be a collective security, not in the usual sense of multinational defence alliances, but by deepening our foundations in our near Asian region. In other words, by placing ourselves more consciously as partner of ASEAN  – both the regional organisation itself and as a group code word for Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the other Southeast Asian member countries that are our nearest Asian neighbours.
China and India have tended to eclipse this region in Australian thinking. Yet it’s significant – ASEAN holds a combined population of 613 million 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.
The region has presented many challenges – people smuggling, terrorism, drug running, cattle slaughter, business ethics – and Australia has been involved in military actions in more than half its nations. But it’s also the region we know best, and disagreements have ended up deepening our engagement.
Apart from trading connections (especially in services) we already have long-term military collaboration with several ASEAN countries and counter-terrorism agreements with most of them.
Australia was the ASEAN organization’s first Dialogue Partner – meeting with its then five member states in Canberra in 1974. At times our diplomatic cooperation with Indonesia has been outstanding and for Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam we are the leading providers of Western education; 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 it does not have a high profile in Australia, particularly in contrast to the United States, China, or India. Most Australians would not see the ASEAN region as critical to our geopolitical future – nor is it clear to the international community.
That is something that can and must be changed. Would it not make sense right now to refine Australia’s international persona: not just as the American ally, but also as a country deeply engaged in and comfortable with its region?
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. 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.
Indeed the ASEAN countries have drawn China into the wider regional architecture they have built around them. The acronyms confuse many Australians – but these developments matter: the security-oriented ASEAN Regional Forum (commencing 1994); the ASEAN Plus Three link with China, Japan and South Korea (1997) and the  East Asia Summit (2007) including the United States, India, Russia, Australia and New Zealand with the ASEAN Plus Three members. Most recent is a defence ministers meeting.
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. Working with ASEAN helps Australia to enhance its own influence in the wider region and its emerging forums.
Closer identification with ASEAN countries 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 engagement with ASEAN it helps project Australia as a partner in Asian affairs – and counters the sense of being an outsider, at odds with our region.
ASEAN countries are hedging with respect to China. 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 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 US connection is seen to bring advantages.
The current regional goodwill offers Australia an opportunity – a strategy for deepening our security without adding to tensions, and for reassuring an Australian public still troubled by the phrase ‘Asian century’. 
*Anthony Milner is Basham Professor of Asian History, ANU and International Director,Asialink. His principal role with Asialink and the University of Melbourne is the continued development of Asialink’s Track II diplomacy initiatives to strengthen ASEAN-Australia relations and engage Australia in the Asia region. Mr Milner is a member of the original organizing committee of Asialink’s key Track II initiative, the Asialink Conversations.asialink
Asialink’s Track II initiatives, Professor Milner judges, are vital if Australia is to build itself into the emerging architecture of the Asian region. 

**For more information on Asialink events and speakers, visit: www.asialink.unimelb.edu.au

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