Current Challenges of the ASEAN-Australia Relationship

AAYLF delegate from Cambodia Chen Heang examines key risks and challenges for both Australia and ASEAN in light of the US-China trade war.

Australia has demonstrated a willingness to accompany ASEAN in tackling risk in the region. The trade war between the United States and China occupies much of the current focus of global economic and political experts. It has significant effects on ASEAN and Australia, facing them both with a choice between the US or China that will also have repercussions for the ASEAN-Australia relationship. Both sides must also acknowledge the challenges facing each member state for relations.

First, ASEAN may prefer to not make a choice due to lessons learned and the current situation in South China Sea which paid ASEAN painful memories. It provides Australia a critical point for reflection before setting foot in the region. Generally, Australia is deep in its relationship with the United States in terms of diplomatic relations and military, and is also strongly economically integrated with China, its largest trading partner. Even now, Australia has not been able to position itself well to explain its actions as an independent actor in the region beside China and the US. Canberra must acknowledge needing to play a sophisticated role to make ASEAN feel that its foreign policy is distinct and not allied to China or the US. Outside tensions allow ASEAN to come closer together at home, however ASEAN also does not want to take a side. So it makes more sense for Australia to focus on other frameworks and areas of cooperation than those dominated by China or the US in the region. 

Second, economic sharing proves the tied relations between states and states. Australia and ASEAN’s economic relations has intensified in the last few years, however; it is still small if compared to other trade partners in the region despite Australia being the first dialogue partner of ASEAN since 1974. Technically, approachable relations would be impacted by the consequences of succeeding preferential access to economic interaction, reinforcing Australia’s reputation as a trustworthy partner of ASEAN by sharing prosperity together. Nevertheless, trade and investment in ASEAN might face some issues such as corruption, tech talent, barriers to ownership and investment, unsupportive infrastructure, skilled labor, or technology. 

Third, ASEAN people and Australia people seem to have less connectivity to each other than other peoples. We can observe that the activities of ASEAN and Australia at a people to people level haven’t seen much for the past few decades. Equally important, when parts of ASEAN face social problems such as health care, clean water, or lack of school infrastructure, as an example, Japanese often come to visit and help by joining campaigns or activities.  So even local people know and love Japanese people. They feel very comfortable with Japanese. Australians should also play a role like the Japanese in this region to build people connectivity. Not only giving aid but also being involved with them to feel as the same neighbourly group.

The hypothesis above proves conclusively that ASEAN and Australia must have more tangible activities in political collaboration, economic integration and social cultural cooperation. ASEAN and Australia should build a Policy or Research Institution as a consultative institution that produces more important frameworks and works to solve regional conflicts. To accelerate economic integration, Australia should be willing to assist ASEAN to enact digital economic policy through Digital trade and E-commerce working group. In addition, Australia should provide more fellowships or internships to ASEAN peoples in order to limit gaps in work experience. Both sides should increase multilateral or bilateral agreements to improve investment regulation and tax deduction. Increasing social activities of both regions would empower local communities. ASEAN and Australian youth or people must get more involved in development projects and campaigns in the region together. To move borders closer, ASEAN and Australia should grant access to Visa-Free travel. Moreover, some Australia entertainments (Sport or Art) should add in ASEAN Member States, rugby in SEA Game is an example. Low levels of barriers correspond to a perceived higher degree of peace and development as we have an obligation to build a strong independent region for every eventuality.