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Australia and ASEAN

Launch by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA FAIIA of Sally Percival Wood and Baogang He (eds), The Australia-ASEAN Dialogue: Tracing Forty Years of Partnership  (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), State Library, Melbourne, 3 December 2014

I’ve said and written many times, as Sally Percival Wood quotes me in her opening chapter, that as Foreign Minister from 1988 to 1996 – the period in which we played a key partnership role in such initiatives as the creation of APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum, and negotiating peace in Cambodia – I had no counterparts anywhere in the world with whom I felt more close and comfortable than my ASEAN colleagues, despite the multitude of cultural and historical factors notionally dividing us.

I remember in particular one occasion during a break in a big Jakarta meeting on Cambodia early in 1990 when, looking for a quiet place in which to make a phone call, I inadvertently stumbled into a room where half a dozen ASEAN ministers were chatting over coffee: my profuse apologies were overborne by calls to stay and join them, with one colleague saying, memorably, ‘Come on in. You’re one of us.’ 

I believed at the time that we had nowhere to go but up after that -- looking back on the trajectory of our relationships with ASEAN’s member countries, and with ASEAN itself since its formation in 1967, and particularly since our becoming its first dialogue partner in 1974; reflecting on the closeness with which we were then working together; and projecting forward. 

But somehow, as Anthony Milner summarises in his concluding chapter what is really an underlying theme of the whole book, things just haven’t clicked as they should have in the Australian-ASEAN relationship. ASEAN doesn’t feature as largely in our collective consciousness as it should, other than as a bunch of travel destinations; we just haven’t given it the policy attention we should; our politicians don’t go out of their way to forge personal relationships with regional counterparts as they should our students don’t study the region and its languages anything like as much as they should, and indeed as they used to; and there is a really striking lack of Australian financial  investment in the region, certainly by comparison with Japan, the US, China, South Korea and a number of Europeans.

I  have to say that I was a little bit  shocked to be accused as being one of the backsliders in this respect, in a footnote in See Seng Tan’s chapter, in which he says “It is telling that in identifying [these] four established and emerging big powers [US, China, India, Indonesia] as among Australia’s key foreign concerns, Gareth Evans …who did more than most to engage the ASEAN region, failed to mention ASEAN even once as a policy focus in a speech on Australian diplomacy delivered in 2012.”

In fact in the speech in question (AIIA Charteris lecture) I did identify as a fifth priority, in addition to getting and keeping right our relations with these powers, ‘winning and keeping a place at the table at the major policymaking forums of the age, both regional and global’, among which I specifically mentioned the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the ASEAN initiated East Asia Summit. And I also said there that despite the impatience which the softness of their decision-making processes  occasionally generated  in Australians like me, “there is much to be said for our South East Asian colleagues’ view that the great value of multilateral engagement is as a process through which trust and confidence are built over time”.

But while I don’t think, accordingly, I’m quite as guilty as charged, I do have to acknowledge that ASEAN as such, and – Indonesia apart – its member countries have drifted back in my consciousness, just as in the consciousness of many others,  from the rather more prominent place they used to occupy. So it’s worth asking ourselves – and this book very much helps us to focus in this respect – why  has this happened, how much does it matter, and what we can do about it. 

As to why it’s happened, the answer cannot be in the diminished size or relevance of ASEAN for the
Australian economy or our strategic decision-making.  As various contributors tell us, our two-way trade with the ASEAN bloc, with its 600 million people, is 15 per cent of the total, putting it second only to China, and well ahead of Japan and the US. We’re the major provider of Western education to a number of countries in the region. And beyond economics, we have developed real intimacy in defence and police relations in many parts of the region, and we continue to engage in an intense flurry of diplomatic activity – both officially and in Track 2 forums -- with all our ASEAN neighbours. Geography hasn’t changed, ASEAN still straddles us, and is still the region of the world from which any physical security threats to us must come or come through.

But if the absolute story hasn’t changed very much the relative one obviously has. China’s quite explosive rise over the last twenty years -- from just another significant developing country to one that is now slugging it out with the United States for not only regional but global dominance – has come to utterly preoccupy policymakers (not to mention education and tourism providers) everywhere, not just in Australia, and to change their sense of relative geopolitical priorities. When I wrote my book on Australia’s Foreign Relations with Bruce Grant in the mid-1990s, China had only just overtaken Taiwan to become our sixth largest trading partner, and was exercising nothing like the political influence it does now. If one thinks that ASEAN has lost some ground in our relative priorities, try also thinking about Japan – to which Bruce Grant and I gave more attention than China twenty years ago, but which did not rate any mention at all in the major priorities I identified in that 2012 speech.

Beyond that kind of explanation, I think it’s also fair to say that one of the reasons ASEAN occupies less mental space of policymakers than it used to is that there has been some degree of disappointment in the way that ASEAN as an institution has functioned.  I certainly feel that disappointment with the ASEAN Regional Forum which I helped establish in 1994, and which was expected then to fairly rapidly evolve as a confidence building, then conflict prevention then conflict management and resolution organization, but which two decades later is still stuck in the first groove.

ASEAN members did do some useful work in the early days of the South China Sea issue, developing the non-binding Declaration of Conduct – but the long awaited transformation of DOC into COC (binding Code of Conduct) hasn’t happened, and the limpness induced by internal divisions and consensual processes mean that ASEAN has been a much weaker collective counterweight to Chinese assertiveness than it could and should have been. Similarly on human rights issues where, despite periodic indications that there might be some serious peer group pressure applied to the foot-draggers in the ranks, nothing very much ever happens.

But all that said, I do think that still ASEAN matters a lot and that it should get more systematically focused attention from both our business community and our foreign policymakers. Surely for business investors the penny must be beginning to drop that this is one of the fastest growing regions of the global economy, with – on figures that Austrade has been using – Indonesia alone  expected to move up the total GDP (PPP) chart from 15th now to 7th in 2030 and 4th in the world (after China, the US and India) by 2050.

ASEAN also matters a lot geostrategically. Its very existence – like that of the European Union – has been an extremely effective conflict prevention mechanism in a region whose previous volatility, and propensity for bloody interstate violence, we seem to have forgotten. And – and this is a theme very effectively brought out in a number of chapters in this book –  when it comes to building effective regional security and economic dialogue and policymaking mechanisms, Australian policymakers have seen to their cost that irritation with ASEAN’s  insistence on its centrality in these institutions is counterproductive.  It may not make much rational sense to have all ten ASEAN states sitting at every major table when three or four would do, but it makes political sense to go with that flow.

I learned that lesson very early on in constructing APEC, and working to build the ARF, but one or two of my successors have had to learn it the hard way.  With the EAS as it has finally come together, although it is still a work in progress, I do think we have a leaders’ forum with the membership and mandate to be a really effective policy engine for the wider region.

Beyond these formal institutional processes, there is perhaps a larger point to be made about how Australian policymakers should be thinking about our South East Asian neighbours. In the present  evolving and uncertain regional geostrategic environment, Australia might well be wise to be a little less overwhelmingly preoccupied with the United States and China, and to become rather more focused on consolidating our position closer to home by developing stronger, closer and more multidimensional relationships with ASEAN and its key member countries.

The argument is essentially that Australia would be more comfortably placed to navigate a course between our superpower military ally and our emerging-superpower major economic partner if we had a stronger identity as a strategic and economic partner with our South East Asian neighbours, and could shrug off once and for all the lingering perception around Asia that we see one of our central roles in the region as playing ‘deputy sheriff’ to the United States. This is kind of role that Australia was building with ASEAN – and especially Indonesia – during the Hawke-Keating governments, but it diminished during the Howard years (despite that Government’s finally overcoming its reluctance to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation as the price of its joining the East Asian Summit)  and we have not recovered that ground since.

Any significant move to consolidate and strengthen – institutionally and personally – our relationship with South East Asia, and to make this a clearer and stronger element in the overall narrative of our foreign policy, certainly need not and should not come at the expense  of our established relationships with the United States and China, and with Japan and South Korea, or of neglecting the need to rapidly further develop our relationship with India.
It is a matter simply of recognizing that in the world as it is, and is becoming, nothing is static; that all of us need as many close friendships as we can; and that 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.

This I think is a theme that comes through over and again in this excellent collection of essays, not just in general terms, but with lots of specific chapter and verse offered about particular areas in which we could directly benefit from closer cooperation. These  include not only the familiar area of education (which the Foreign Minister is right to emphasise in her Foreword) but counter-terrorism, civil nuclear energy, agrifood, Islamic banking and forced migration.

Out of all the areas of current and future concern that would benefit from a generally more engaged relationship, the one above others that I would be trying to rapidly advance is the last on that list.  No Australian political party – in or out of government, or sitting on the cross-benches – has conducted itself with any glory at all in the handling of the asylum-seeker issue in recent years, and one of the least glorious chapters of all  has been the utter inability of our policymakers to bring to fruition the arrangements contemplated by the Bali Process, which looked for a time so promising, and put in place once and for all an effective regional processing system.  But we are not going to get there without a rather fundamental recalibration of our attitudes and behaviour towards our ASEAN neighbours. 

With this book, the editors – Sally Percival Woods and Baogang He – and their dozen other outstanding contributors have given us a pretty comprehensive handbook as to how to manage that recalibration. It deserves to be widely read, and its messages absorbed. I congratulate the publishers Palgrave Macmillan and everyone involved for a very professional and timely publication, and am delighted to declare it duly launched.