ASEAN for Australia: Matters more, matters less

Over the last decade, ASEAN has come to matter more for Australian diplomacy and interests in Southeast Asia, writes Malcolm Cook.

ASEANology fixates on the question does ASEAN matter. ASEAN’s self-proclaimed centrality, now elevated to the capital C in ASEAN documents, is a salve to this existential doubt. ASEAN dialogue partners, existing and desiring, are pressed to affirm this principle and chastised if they are perceived not to affirm the centrality of an organisation they cannot join.

Over the last decade, ASEAN has come to matter more for Australian diplomacy and interests in Southeast Asia. At the same time, ASEAN and Southeast Asian states collectively appear to matter less for Australian diplomacy and interests beyond this region. This Australia-ASEAN double movement is unlikely to moderate in the decade ahead.

The inaugural ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Sydney in March 2018 was the definitive symbol of ASEAN mattering more for Australian diplomacy in Southeast Asia. It was the inaugural ASEAN-Australia special summit, and the first ASEAN-Australia summit of any adjective outside Southeast Asia. The host, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, claimed that the Summit confirmed “Australia’s steadfast commitment to ASEAN – the centrality of ASEAN and Australia as an all-weather friend, now and in the future.”

Australia’s dialogue partner relationship with ASEAN deepened and broadened before this apex event and after. In 2010, the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement entered into force, complimenting Australia’s bilateral agreements with Singapore, Thailand and, later, Malaysia and Indonesia. In 2014, ASEAN-Australia dialogue partner relations became a strategic partnership. In 2016, the inaugural ASEAN-Australia Biennial Summit was one of the related meetings of the second annual ASEAN Summit.  In 2020, the third ASEAN-Australia Biennial Summit agreed to become annual events, and Australia signed the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade deal. Through ASEAN, Australian leaders and officials meet their Southeast Asian counterparts more frequently and regularly, and the environment for closer commercial relations between Australia and Southeast Asia is better.

The inaugural Quad Leaders Summit in March 2021 is a definite signal that ASEAN, and Southeast Asian states collectively matter less for Australia beyond Southeast Asia. This meeting was the first regional forum outside the ASEAN-led East Asia Summit to bring together the leaders of the USA, Japan, India and Australia, and the first to do so without China included. In the East Asia Summit, ASEAN sets the agenda and Australia is an invited ASEAN dialogue partner. In the Quad, Australia is a full member.

The Quad and its elevation exemplify a broader diplomatic development motivated much by shared concerns over destabilising Chinese behaviours and the benefit of addressing them collectively. The expanding agenda and profile of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network between the USA, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia and the proposed expansion of the G7 grouping to include India, South Korea and Australia are other examples.

Another manifestation is the growing number of motions and declarations addressing these Chinese behaviours that states can support or not. The most recent of these is the Canada-initiated Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations launched in February 2021. China’s Global Times denounced the Declaration as “as aggressive and ill-considered attack designed to provoke China.” In July 2020, in the United Nations Human Rights Council, the UK spoke on behalf of 27 states critical of Hong Kong’s new National Security Law. Cuba spoke for 53 states that supported this law. Chinese media claim that over 70 states support this law. A year earlier, 22 states issued a joint letter to the Council condemning Chinese policies and alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Four days later an opposing letter supporting China’s Xinjiang policies was issued and eventually backed by 49 states and the Palestinian Authority.

Australia, along with Japan, the UK, Canada, and New Zealand support all three motions opposed by China. The USA supports the Canada-initiated arbitrary detention declaration and has unilaterally sanctioned China’s alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong’s National Security Law. India is silent.

Southeast Asian states are silent or supportive of China on these three motions with one recent exception. No Southeast Asian state signed the July 2019 letter criticising China on Xinjiang. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines signed China’s opposing letter. No Southeast Asian state was among the 27 states the United Kingdom spoke for against Hong Kong’s National Security Law. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar were among the 53 states spoken for by Cuba. So far only one Southeast Asian state, the Philippines, has supported the arbitrary detention declaration. ASEAN, as a consensus-constrained institution, has no voice on these issues.

With Xi Jinping as president for life, there is little prospect that China will moderate the behaviours engendering such widespread coordinated international reaction. The clear differences between how Australia and most Southeast Asian states and ASEAN respond to these behaviours diplomatically likely will only widen. ASEAN matters more for Australia in Southeast Asia and less beyond.

Malcolm Cook is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. This piece was first published in the La Trobe Asia Brief Issue 5 - Australia-Southeast Asia Relations: The post COVID-19 regional order.