Building stronger relations between Australia and ASEAN

ASEAN countries need to prove themselves worthy to become strategic partners for middle and even major powers, writes Lina Alexandra.

Relations between members of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) and Australia have grown substantively in the last decade. Once a “marriage of convenience”, they have transformed into “strategic partners” with stronger commitments. In March 2018, Vietnam signed a Joint Statement which marks the beginning of its strategic partnership with Australia, expanding both countries’ cooperation from economic into defense cooperation.

In August 2018, Indonesia and Australia elevated their strategic  partnership into a comprehensive one. Then, in January 2021, Malaysia signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Australia. Subsequent summits have affirmed stronger ties between the two.

Meanwhile, the spread of COVID-19 has hit countries across the globe with an unthinkable degree of destruction to state capabilities. Thus, the ultimate question is: What would be the future for ASEAN-Australia relations in the post-COVID world?

In general, there is optimism. Australia will likely continue to participate in various ASEAN-led multilateral forums. It also supports the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), as shown by Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s promises to contribute AUD$46 million to provide technical assistance and capacity building.

Moreover, COVID-19 has opened opportunities to expand the area of cooperation, particularly in helping Southeast Asian countries improve health management capacity. Both sides have committed to establish the ASEAN-Australia Health Security Initiative, including Australia’s contribution to support the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases. Australia has also pledged to contribute AUD$500 million to promote access to vaccines and regional health security, and has extended the partnership to help in the recovery process.

The relationship could meet some hurdles. First, the recent slash of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) budget seems to indicate an unfortunately declining reliance on diplomacy. Furthermore, Australia’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) will only receive AUD$4 billion for the 2020-21 period, down AUD$44 million from 2019-20. This is within the government’s policy to freeze aid funding, which is expected to continue until 2022-23. In contrast defence budget increased significantly to AUD$575 billion.

The Australian Strategic Defence Update 2020 may also raise concerns. While it is unsurprising to see US-China strategic competition remains the top focus, the document specifies the prospect of high intensity military conflict in the Indo-Pacific, which is ‘less remote’ than in the past. Thus, Australian defence capabilities will be redirected to the area ranging from the ‘north-eastern Indian Ocean through maritime and mainland Southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific’.

This development might alarm Southeast Asia, and a proper dialogue is necessary to avoid escalating suspicions. For ASEAN countries, their immediate focus is likely on pandemic management and economic recovery, and relationships with major powers will be shaped toward achieving this aim. Despite some countries’ preferences to tilt either to China or US, ASEAN will seek to maintain their ambivalent responses, which is rooted in the underlying intention of regional neutrality, as well as pragmatic interests to secure whatever resources needed from the two giants.

As much as Southeast Asian countries are concerned by China’s behavior in the region, it is viewed as too powerful and too costly to confront and they do not want to aggravate a potential partner. In this context, Australia’s vision to implement “rules-based order” should be pursued through extensive dialogue with Southeast Asia counterparts by strengthening force. Southeast Asian countries do not want attention in the region simply to be because of the “China factor”, but based on building genuine relations to understand its closest neighbors better. For Australia, they are interested in seeing ASEAN be  “strong, cohesive and responsive”, which will benefit the whole region.

The recent political crisis in Myanmar presents another litmus test for ASEAN. Although Australia is unlikely to push ASEAN too hard on this, it will remain watchful to see how it will deal with this issue.

Thus, ASEAN countries need to prove themselves worthy to become strategic partners for middle and even major powers, precisely because of certain qualities that make them equal, which in this case is by being a strong, cohesive and responsive organisation. In the end, both ASEAN and Australia need to pursue what the wise say: “Keep your promises, be consistent and be the kind of person others can trust.”

Lina Alexandra is a senior researcher at the Centre of  Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Indonesia. This piece was first published in the La Trobe Asia Brief Issue 5 - Australia-Southeast Asia Relations: The post COVID-19 regional order.