45 Years of ASEAN-Australia Relations: the Contributions to ASEAN Community Building

By Lim Chhay, student of International Relations, Department of International Studies at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

ASEAN and Australian Leaders at the Special Summit in 2018

Being a Southeast Asia regionalism-promoting organization, ASEAN has expanded its role and worked hard to maintain regional peace and stability by not only internally strengthening the cooperation, but also collaborating with the dialogue partners upon the idea of inclusive regionalism as listed in its 2007 Charter. 

Historically, Australia became ASEAN’s first dialogue partner in 1974 and continued to widen their scope of cooperation, reflecting on the three main pillars of ASEAN Community namely political and security, economic, and socio-cultural cooperation. It is argued that such partnership has contributed much to the process of building an ASEAN Community Vision 2025. 

The ASEAN Secretariat Information Centre (n.d.) pointed out that the transformation from ASEAN-Australia dialogue partnership to a level of strategic partnership was made during the 40th Commemorative Summit in Myanmar, further showing the commitment of both parties to strengthening cooperation and contributing to the betterment of the region. 

This article aims to provide an overview on ASEAN-Australia relations in this 45-year journey, and the contributions such a partnership has made to the three pillars of the ASEAN Community. It will be concluded by discussing the prospect of what lies ahead for the future of the ASEAN-Australia strategic partnership.


Status Quo of ASEAN-Australia Relations

As mentioned earlier, Australia became ASEAN’s first dialogue partner in 1974. Noticeably, ASEAN-Australia relations can be seen as entering a deeper relationship compared to that of the past. 

Heydarian (2018) argued that the status quo of such partnership is driven by shared concerns regarding geopolitical tensions in Southeast Asia, as aggravated by Trump’s protectionist policies, the rise of China, super power competition, and economic incentives to cooperate. More or less, ASEAN-Australia relations can be seen as a positive sum game where we can see the mutual benefits to both parties. 

The positives for Australia are evident, not to mention Jokowi’s invitation and Canberra’s apparent inkling to consider membership of ASEAN during the 2018 Special Summit, attracting scholars’ attention and analyses of the possibility and the outcomes of such a membership. 

Cook (2018) criticised the frenzy around Australian membership to ASEAN as more advocacy by scholars rather than an analysis. His position seems to reiterate that Australia maintaining the status quo as a strong dialogue partnership of ASEAN is more important that membership. Importantly, the contribution that this partnership has made to the process of building the ASEAN Community should be noticed.


Contributions to ASEAN Political Security Community (APSC)

Recently we could see how Australia was involved in the process of building the ASEAN Political Security Community. Firstly, Australia has been a strong advocate in supporting ASEAN’s centrality role in the region by being an active participant in ASEAN-led regional forum such as East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Defence Minister Meeting Plus, etc. 

Moreover, with common concerns around regional security issues, we have recently seen a focus on counter-terrorism and transnational crimes, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and maritime security cooperation between these two parties, shown in the Sydney Declaration in March 2018. 

Noticeably, during Thailand’s 2019 ASEAN Chairmanship, ASEAN and Australia pushed forwards on the human trafficking issue across Southeast Asia. A huge initiative accounting for $54 million over a ten-year term is known as the ASEAN-Australia Counter Trafficking Initiative, aiming to strengthen the criminal justice system within ASEAN Member States (Wyeth, 2019).


Counter-terrorism and non-traditional security cooperation between Australia and ASEAN states. Source: South China Morning Post.

Contributions to ASEAN Economic Community (AEC)
The ASEAN Economic Community Blue Print 2015 listed the objectives of establishing a highly integrated and cohesive economy, while also committing to creating global value chains across ASEAN economies. 

ASEAN has held a free trade agreement with Australia and New Zealand since 2009, and this ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (AANZFTA) is considered the deepest and broadest among the five free trade agreements between ASEAN and dialogue partners (Cook, 2018). Australia’s trading relations with Southeast Asia further increases the Foreign Direct investment (FDI) multilaterally within ASEAN, and bilaterally with some ASEAN States. Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia are Australia’s top three largest trading partners in the ASEAN region. 

Most of Australian investment in ASEAN is based largely in Singapore, followed by Thailand and Malaysia. The ASEAN Secretariat Information Centre shows the preliminary data on total two-way trade between ASEAN and Australia in 2017 reaching USD 59 billion, as the seventh largest trading partner to ASEAN among other dialogue partners, while ASEAN was one of the Australia’s top trading partners with the two-way trade accounted for AU$ 93.2 billion in 2016, around 15 per cent of Australia’s total trade. 

In addition to this, ASEAN and Australia showed the commitment to accelerating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership during the Special Summit in Sydney (Synergy, 2019). In short, it is believed that economic incentives are a cornerstone for strengthening this relationship.

Figure 1: Australian Goods Exports to ASEAN. Source: Australian Government

Contributions to ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC)

Former Prime Minister of Thailand, Abhisit (2018) once pointed out the importance of the Socio-Cultural Community for the future of ASEAN, whose key elements are human development, welfare, rights and justice, environmental sustainability, narrowing the development gap, and building an ASEAN identity. In terms of promoting human capital in ASEAN, the main contribution of ASEAN-Australia Relations to ASCC is about educational cooperation. 

Education is the main sector for such partnership for the provision of Australia Awards Scholarship to ASEAN students, with over 150,000 international students enrolled in Australian schools in 2016 (ASEAN, n.d.).

In addition to this, Australia is also a strong advocate for the Project on “Preventing the Exploitation of Migrant Women Workers in ASEAN Region”, implemented by UN Women. Australia also provide the financial support and technical assistance for disaster management in ASEAN.


Prospect for ASEAN-Australia Strategic Partnership

With the uncertainties of geopolitical tensions, Trump’s populist and protectionist polices, the recent China-US trade war, and many other security challenges, ASEAN and Australia share the common threats from such a complicated world order. 

This probably is a key impetus for further strengthening the cooperation in a win-win manner, and a good point for both parties to turn shared challenges into opportunities for growth. In this situation, what ASEAN enjoys from such partnership is an ability to maintain its central role in Southeast Asia whilst also receiving both financial and technical support from Australia for tackling regional challenges. 

The future of the ASEAN-Australia Strategic Partnership seems to be more positive than negative since its transformation from a dialogue partner to a strategic partner and the creation of a permanent Australian Mission to ASEAN, symbolising the commitment to meeting regularly on updating such relations. 

More or less, in this chaotic world system, it is still more about the commitment of both parties to meet and share the mutual understanding, and try to reach a common interest. 

With those common interests, the relationship still remains resilient and beneficial, notwithstanding the uncertainty of geopolitical tensions, and the changes in this globalized world.

References

Australian Government. (n.d.). Australia and ASEAN trade and investment relationship. Retrieved from https://www.austrade.gov.au/asean-now/why-asean-matters-to-australia/australia-asean-trade-investment-relationship/

Cook, M. (2018, August 06). ASEAN-Australia relations: the suitable status quo. Lowy Institute. Retrieved from https://www.lowyinstitute.org/publications/asean-australia-relations-suitable-status-quo

ASEAN. (n.d.). Overview ASEAN-Australia dialogue relations. Retrieved from https://asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Overview-of-ASEAN-Australia-DR_as-of-July-2018.pdf

Heydarian, R. (2018, March 26). Is Australia set to join ASEAN as China’s assertiveness grows? South China Morning Post. Retrieved from https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2138790/australia-set-join-asean-chinas-assertiveness-grows

Wyeth, G. (2019, August 07). Australia and ASEAN push efforts to combat human trafficking. The Diplomat. Retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2019/08/australia-and-asean-push-efforts-to-combat-human-trafficking/

The future of Australia-ASEAN relations. (2019, March 27). Synergy. Retrieved from http://utsynergyjournal.org/2019/03/27/the-future-of-australia-asean-relations/

Vejjajiva, A. (2017). The critical importance of socio-cultural community for the future of ASEAN In Bavlera, A. & Maramls, L. (Ed.). Building ASEAN community: Political-security and socio-cultural reflections. (346).