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The challenges for ASEAN

Presentation to Indiana University/Asia Foundation Panel Discussion on International Engagement with ASEAN in an Era of Rapid Geopolitical Change, Bangkok, 28 February 2019

Warmest congratulations, on behalf of the Australian National University, to President Michael McRobbie and all our friends, colleagues and partners from Indiana University on the opening of IU’s Global Gateway, celebrating 70 years of IU engagement in Thailand. As a university passionately committed since our founding to engagement with Asia, we at ANU are delighted with the substantial relationship we have developed with IU in Asia-Pacific studies, and in particular our co-hosting of the Pan Asia Institute.

Thanks to IU and the Asia Foundation for helping marking the Gateway celebration by bringing us together for this important panel debate. I am delighted to be sharing this platform not only with one of Indiana’s favorite sons, Ambassador David Carden, who has a deservedly outstanding reputation in this region from his time as President Obama’s representative to ASEAN – in a rather more rational and civilised era than the one we are now enduring! – and particularly with my long-time friend and colleague Dr Marty Natalegawa.

Pak Marty is as thoughtful an analyst of ASEAN as anyone alive, as he demonstrated with the launch of his book Does ASEAN Matter? A View from Within last year – and again with his presentation today. He has been as good a friend to the region as Indonesia has ever had; and certainly as good an Indonesian friend as we at ANU, his alma mater, have ever had.

Pak Marty is right to be proud about what ASEAN has achieved in the past, above all in transforming a region of extraordinary cultural, linguistic and religious diversity, with a very long history of discord and deadly conflict, into a genuine community where ( as has been the case with the European Union, for all its present discontents) not only is war between any of its member states effectively now unthinkable, but what might once have been very drawn out and acrimonious non-lethal disputes are now for the most part resolved with few or no tears at all.

Even at the best of times ASEAN diplomacy tends to be a grindingly slow and painstaking business: frustration comes with the territory. But it’s also true that there is a sense of camaraderie and community, and generally very strong personal warmth between its key players, which has underpinned for decades the basic ASEAN success story. Even as an outsider, I certainly experienced that, and have often said that as Australia’s foreign minister from 1988-96 – not least during the period we were negotiating the Cambodian peace accords – I had no counterparts anywhere in the world with whom I felt closer and more comfortable than my ASEAN colleagues, despite the multitude of cultural and historical factors notionally dividing us.

For all that we can laud the past, and be optimistic about what can be achieved with the right mindset and application in the years ahead, there are grounds for concern, which Pak Marty clearly shares, as to whether ASEAN can in fact meet the multiple challenges which are now accumulating – economic, social and geopolitical, and both internal and external – and maintain its future relevance, let alone its centrality. From the perspective of an affectionately-disposed neighbour, I think there are at least six major challenges which ASEAN now faces, its response to which will determine whether it is in the future as successful as we all want it to be.

The first challenge, and I think the one most likely to be satisfied, is that ASEAN continues to be, like the EU, one of the world’s great internal conflict prevention success stories, and that its member states do not lapse back into bad old confrontational habits over issues of sea and land borders and the like. I do believe that ASEAN as an organization has fundamentally changed the culture of the region in this respect, and that there is no real prospect of this happening for the foreseeable future.

The second challenge is for ASEAN, as ASEAN, to make a substantial contribution to the rapid, continuing and dramatic – albeit not uniform – development of South East Asia’s economies. Here again it is reasonable to accept that the organization itself has added and will continue to add value, not only in transforming the background political environment from turbulence to trust, but with its multiple internal economic cooperation programs, and its role in galvanising explicit support from a number of Dialogue Partners. But there are plenty of challenges ahead: maintaining economic momentum, including job creation, will not be easy in an environment where there are not only mounting new external geopolitical stresses and uncertainties with the US-China contest, but a backlash everywhere against globalisation and a fear, thoroughly justified, of the unskilled and less-skilled being left completely behind by digitalisation.

The third challenge is whether ASEAN has been, or can continue to be, an effective institutional vehicle for addressing cross-boundary regional problems like haze pollution, fisheries management, and unregulated people movements – important if it is to fully realise its potential (as Marty nicely puts it) as a people-centric rather than state-centric association. There does seem here to have been a considerable gap between aspiration and actual performance, with ASEAN institutions and processes making minimal contributions in practice, despite having ample cooperative frameworks in place.

The fourth challenge, which unhappily has been acquiring new salience in recent times, is living up to the standards of democratic and human rights governance to which ASEAN (very largely as a result of Marty’s own efforts) is formally committed. Here there are very real grounds for concern, bordering on alarm. It has always been something of a tightrope act balancing ASEAN’s traditional, and understandable, desire to continue to give primacy to state sovereignty and non-interference against the need to address unacceptable violations of universally recognised civil and political rights, and a number of its member states have always had authoritarian governing structures. But ASEAN cannot be blind to the extent to which in recent times internal developments in so many states have really been putting at risk the ASEAN brand.

There really has been an evident deterioration in the quality of member state commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and elsewhere, and above all in the shocking treatment by Myanmar of its Muslim Rohingya people, where ASEAN’s impotence has been most apparent. All these violations seriously limit any soft power ASEAN may otherwise be able to exercise, including in those regional organizations in which it continues to want to claim ‘centrality’.

The fifth challenge – and an ever-more serious ones in a world, and region, where great power relationships are manifestly deteriorating – is whether ASEAN is capable of providing any kind of effective collective response to external security challenges. It has found it extraordinarily difficult to maintain cohesion in the face of a newly confident and assertive China which has been, I think we have to acknowledge, only too happy to create, or re-create – if it can do so without violent conflict – some kind of hegemonic, tributary relationship with its southern neighbours. In particular, with at least two of ASEAN’s members, Cambodia and Laos, now as closely embedded with Beijing as they are, it has proved impossible to reach consensus on any kind of sustained, substantive, collective reaction on the South China Sea issue.

Pak Marty has played in the past, as Foreign Minister, an important role in patching over some of these cracks, and I have heard him recently express a degree of optimism that something might finally be happening to give substance to the long-sought goal of negotiating a substantial, binding Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. But as much as I would like to share that optimism, it is difficult in the present environment. If there is to be push back against some of the more unacceptable dimensions of Chinese assertiveness, it’s less likely to come from ASEAN collectively than from its most powerful players – Indonesia and Vietnam, and I would like to hope Thailand – playing a more active and assertive role.

The sixth, and remaining, challenge is whether ASEAN can continue to credibly maintain its longstanding claim to ‘centrality’ in the continuing evolution of Asia-Pacific, and now Indo-Pacific, economic and security architecture. It can reasonably claim that role in relation to the current development of RCEP (the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), initiated by Indonesia in 2011, which has been seen as an attractive partial alternative to the originally US-driven TPP. And it is true that APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and now the East Asian Summit (EAS) have all been built up around a core of ASEAN members, utilising ASEAN + dialogue processes to get them started. ASEAN has played an acknowledged ‘strategic convenor’ role.

But it is not clear that in recent years it has been contributing much, if anything at all, to initiating or implementing substantive agendas in any of these bodies. As Pak Marty put it today, and very starkly in his book, and I agree with him: ‘ASEAN cannot rest on its laurels…it must instead actively earn its centrality and leadership in the region’s architecture building. Should ASEAN stand still, then at best its claimed centrality will increasingly ring hollow and ASEAN will be rendered redundant; or worse, it will be swept aside by dynamics beyond its control’.

The bottom line in all of this is not whether ASEAN will survive – which it must, in all our interests, and surely will– but whether it will fully realise its potential. I think it is impossible to disagree with what Pak Marty has said and written about the prerequisites for that: maintaining unity and cohesion, not just formally but substantively; maintaining genuinely cooperative leadership; creating, or re-creating, an ambitious, transformative outlook, not just drifting along reacting to rather than trying to shape events; and further enhancing its people-centric, rather than excessively state sovereignty-focused outlook.

Among the questions for this panel is what countries like mine with an interest in improving ASEAN’s effectiveness can do help ensure that it does fully realise its potential, and prospers rather than withers. With the particular uncertainties now evident about the future course of behaviour of both the United States and China, it has never been more important that all the other countries of the region work together to build more collective strength – economically, politically, through defence ties, through higher education and research cooperation and other person-to-person links. In this context it seems to me a very opportune time to recognise the case for intensifying Australia-ASEAN relations, whatever the degree of difficulty involved in making this happen in the present environment.

What’s in it for ASEAN in building a closer relationship with Australia? The strengths that Australia might be seen as bringing to the relationship – despite our comparatively small population not beginning to match the size of our landmass – include being the thirteenth largest economy in the world; having a military capability, and annual military expenditure, comparable to that of ASEAN countries collectively; being one of the most multicultural countries in the world, with a rapidly growing Asian-born population and very large pool of fluent Asian-language speakers; having a unique geopolitical perspective, bridging our European history and our Asia-Pacific geography; and having an international record as a creative middle power with a long – though certainly not unbroken – record of active and effective diplomacy on both regional and global issues.

What’s in it for Australia in building a closer relationship with ASEAN is self-evident. From Australia’s perspective, South East Asia will continue to be an economic growth engine, and its stability and coherence matters immensely to us geo-strategically. My longstanding view is that we would be well advised to be a little less overwhelmingly preoccupied than we tend to be with the big two – the US and China – and become rather more focused on consolidating our position closer to home. Having a stronger identity as a strategic, conomic and comfortable social partner with our South East Asian neighbours would help us shrug off once and for all the lingering perception around Asia that we see one of our central roles as playing ‘deputy sheriff’ to the United States. This is the kind of identity that Australia was constructing with ASEAN – and especially Indonesia – during the Hawke-Keating governments, but it has visibly diminished since.

There are plenty of foundations on which to build further. ASEAN is collectively Australia’s second largest trading partner, after China; some 120,000 ASEAN students enrolled in our universities; and there are already close security ties with a number of ASEAN member states. As to the suggestions made from time to time that Australia seek formal membership of the organization, I think that is almost certainly premature. But it would be in both our interests for those bonds to be very much stronger still.

The final point I would make relates to both Australia and ASEAN. Any significant move to consolidate and strengthen – institutionally and personally – Australia’s relationship with South East Asia, and to make this a clearer and stronger element in the overall narrative of both our foreign policies, certainly need not and should not come at the expense of the established relationships of both of us with the United States and China. Nor should it come at the expense of our relationships with Japan and South Korea, or our growing relationships with India.

The point is simply that in today’s fraught world all of us need as many close friendships as we can. For Australia there is much to be gained, and nothing to be lost, by making much more of the friendships we already have with our immediate northern neighbours. And I hope for the ASEAN countries the same is seen as true for their relationship with their big southern neighbour, particularly as, demographically and otherwise, Australia becomes an ever less European and ever more Eurasian country.