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When Geopolitics fails- Australia’s opportunity for diplomacy in the ASEAN region

For the world of international relations, the behaviours and trends of superpowers are often more predictable than surprising. As a medium power state, Australia pays close attention to the actions of these powers and its impact on the region. The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for Australia to examine the state its relations amongst ASEAN states. 

In June this year, Australia released its Defence Strategic Update addressing key security concerns for the next decade. Two key findings were of note: a declining presence of the United States of America (USA) in the Asia-Pacific region, and the rise of China. As a result of these geopolitical changes, Australia has identified changing defence priorities including the assumption of a ten-year strategic warning time for a conventional attack against Australia. In this time, there has been a significant financial commitment to military preparedness with the Australian government committing $270 billion over ten years. This financial commitment is not matched with a boost in diplomatic funding with only $1 billion committed over the same time period. In addition to this, diplomatic priorities have shifted away from the Asia-Pacific region. 

Much of Australia’s heightened security concerns centres around the rise of China and the decreasing influence of the United States in the region. Australia fears China’s influence in the Pacific and South-East Asian region, reducing the influence of democratic values that Australia sees as useful in engaging diplomatically. Additionally, Australia fears the actions of China in the region militarily against Australia or in teaming up with ASEAN states. 

However, the defence response to the Australian government’s threat identification misses a crucial first step – diplomacy. Diplomatic presence in ASEAN states would help promote Australia’s presence and values such as democracy, human rights and free economies to improve the potential for collaboration. The existence of Australian missions in ASEAN states also educates diplomats on the complexities of these states and develops a better understanding of cultural norms. Diplomacy can and should play an important role in security considerations as a preventative tool of conflict. Given the Australian government’s limited engagement with the South-east Asian region, an increase in presence, let alone a decrease, is an important first step to building conducive security relationships in the region. 

In additional to improving Australia’s diplomatic presence in ASEAN states, Australia also has a ways to go in improving its domestic understanding of ASEAN states to bridge the cultural divide in the region. Australia has a well-established relationship with ASEAN in trade, politics and socio-cultural exchange. Why then, is ‘ASEAN’ still a foreign concept to the majority of Australian politicians? And why does Australia still consider itself in closer alignment to the United States and United Kingdom than its closest neighbour, Indonesia? 

A case study of Australia’s closest neighbour, Indonesia, highlights the gap in socio-cultural relations with ASEAN states. As Australia’s 13th largest trade partner and closest neighbour, it would be reasonable to assume that Australia and Indonesia share strong cultural ties amongst the general population. The opposite cannot be more true. Less than 5% of all primary and high school students in Australia study Indonesian. 

Further to this, many Australians have limited understanding of the Asia-pacific region. This limits the ability to build cross-country ties in trade and commerce. Often Australian companies will look to Europe and US as traditional markets for trade and commerce. ASEAN states are seen as stopovers in their quest for international markets. A better understanding of ASEAN states and their economic potential will increase the number of relationships made and strengthen Australia’s ties with the region. 

Alongside improved commercial ties, a domestic understanding of ASEAN states will improve diplomatic decision making in Canberra. Superpowers remain the focus area of international relations for Australia. While understanding our relationship to these powers is important, the diplomatic value of the South-East Asian region remains untapped. For example, a better understanding of Indonesia’s military strategy through diplomatic relations may strengthen both countries’ defence capability.  

Changes in the geopolitical order may largely be out of the control of Australia, however, how Australia emerges is important. Australia has the opportunity to align itself closely with the South-East Asian region, and ASEAN states in particular, to develop local allies. The opportunities of partnership have the potential to improve Australia’s security. 

Infographic by Helena Trang

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