ASEAN’s Future Lies in Australia

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese issued an emphatic commitment to Southeast Asia at the Australia-ASEAN Summit.

This sends the strongest intent yet of Australia and the West in defending the rules-based order and to send a direct message to Beijing that the Southeast Asian region still is not China’s to lose.

The governing centre-left Labor party has long aimed to forge closer ties with the region, recognising Australia’s geographical reality. Australia in return is viewed overwhelmingly through the lenses of its close ties with the Western pact, including with the UK and the US with AUKUS being the main point of contention.

The region remains critical for Australia’s security and economic future, and Australia provides the Western bastion and assurances of security support to the region apart from existing regional Western allies including the Philippines.

As Prime Minister Albanese stated, more than any other part of the world, Southeast Asia is where Australia’s destiny lies. It remains the epicentre of overall Indo Pacific strategy and stability, being the linking point of the East and West.

As the region continue to struggle in navigating the deeper power conflict between Beijing and the West and the escalating arms races and security dilemma, it will need to strengthen the fallback option and greater Western security support system in a manner that is in line with the region’s traditional non-aligned status quo and without upsetting Beijing.

This dilemma has been difficult with the regional divide in responding to Beijing’s increasing assertiveness and coercion, and any overtures will invite greater bellicosity. Australia is seen as a softer overture and source of assurance for the region, without inviting obvious repercussions of economic and diplomatic retaliations as compared to Washington.

However, as Beijing ramps up its bellicose actions in the sea, the legitimacy of the quest to solicit greater alignments with the West and the rules based order will be naturally higher. However, the region missed the window of opportunity that has been opened by Canberra in reinforcing the region’s desire to work deeper in upholding the rules and law of the sea and in sending a defiant tone to China.

The Southeast Asian region remains critical to Canberra especially in the domains of energy, trade, economic, supply chain and minerals security and resilience. The essence of assurances and strategic overviews for these sectors and their future derivation of returns lie in the sanctity of peace, stability and adherence to the international and freedom of navigation, in which Beijing is undermining now.

Hence, the hard power focus on upholding the rules-based order and the focus on security issues remain inevitable, and the quest to preserve this must not be seen as forcing one party to choose side over another.

The region’s divided responses and affiliations remain the biggest obstacle to the West’s consolidated approach. It will have to rely on bilateral and direct targeting with surgical approaches with specific interest targets. The deepening of strategic military and economic ties with Manila and Hanoi remain a case in point.

Indonesia, along with Malaysia, is among Australia’s allies in the region to have raised concerns that Canberra’s investing tens of billions of dollars in nuclear submarines and the AUKUS pact are creating a new wave of escalatory arms races and heightening the security dilemma facing the region. Both Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur remain strategically non-aligned but maintain close economic ties with Beijing, which further strengthened Beijing’s cards in deploying both the economic and hard power cards in the region.

This has hampered Canberra and Washington’s efficacy and strategy in severing this Chinese economic dependence in return of a more appealing offer in economic and trade overture. The region remains hopeful for a stabilising and deterring presence of the West’s hard power assurances as an insurance against Beijing’s future behaviours, but it hopes for a greater and less strings-attached model to the West’s economic enticement as well. This strategy remains increasingly unrealistic.

The collisions and the unsafe and destabilising behaviours and actions by Chinese Coast Guard in the vicinity of Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands remain the lingering factor for Canberra to continue to portray the urgency of the need to secure maritime rights and for the region to do more to uphold this principle.

The Melbourne Declaration which has been endorsed by Australia and the 10 ASEAN states,  called for peaceful resolution of the South China Sea disputes through legal and diplomatic processes in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Australia and the Philippines have pushed for the Declaration to include reference to cite the 2016 arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s claims. This remains a far fetched dream, as the final document contains neither the ruling nor refers to China by name.

This has been a consistent trap of fear for ASEAN in upsetting the apple cart,  a reflection of its internal divide and a clear portrayal that even those with competing claims in the South China Sea are unwilling to jeopardize their fruitful economic relations with China.

Australia’s desires to seek a stronger ASEAN response or resolute stance have been buried by the strong and ingrained dogma of ASEAN, but however small the momentum or gains are derived, it is a price or effort that Canberra is willing to pay, as long as the long term assurance are built and for ASEAN to remain committed at least in gradual terms.

This stance of siding with ASEAN’s centrality and neutrality is thus vital for Canberra to maintain the buy-in from the region, and seeing how the region is at the forefront of geographical importance to Australia in acting as the buffer from China to its north, and as a connecting pathway to trade with East Asia.

Australia has succeeded in sending a strong message to both ASEAN and China. To ASEAN, Canberra has communicated its commitment well both in economic and security terms.

The most significant intent and message was the $1.3 billion fund to boost trade and investment in Southeast Asia, particularly in support of the region’s clean energy transition and infrastructure development. This comes on top of  additional funding for maritime security (A$64 million) and infrastructure (A$140 million), as well as a string of smaller commitments, including the establishment of an ASEAN-Australia Centre in Canberra and an expansion of Australia’s scholarship program for ASEAN nationals.

The keyword will be the goal for a free and open Indo Pacific, which is directly in line with the overall final goal of the West in defending this norm.

This will augur well for closer bonds and building trust and confidence in the region for the Australians, cementing the expansion of Canberra’s soft power and consolidating the efficacy of a comprehensive security spectrum.

The Albanese government has also strategically enhanced the ease of  business visas for Southeast Asians.

For long, Canberra’s ties with the region has been defined by a considerable gap between the rhetoric of leaders from both sides, and the persistent policy and security trap that is moulded by the different cultures, backgrounds, political and belief systems and contextual development of both parties.

Australia remains the most important permanent physical geographical symbol of the West in the Indo Pacific and this region, and the reality requires the country to foster long term, stabilising and realistically beneficial ties with the region based on a new model of trust based relationship in a domain that is different from the region’s ties with Beijing.

The Summit created a successful platform for this effort and in closing past and existing gaps. The challenge moving forward is the momentum and intent to maintain this drive, vis a vis the new pressure and retaliatory moves by Beijing. The region and ASEAN cannot afford to bypass the most critical assurance to the peace and stability in the region and the Indo Pacific, which is the reassuring presence of Washington and its allies in upholding the rules-based order.

[Photo by the ASEAN Secretariat]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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