The Australia-ASEAN partnership at 40: past dilemmas and future prospects

In the Asian Century, where does Australia fit? Nyien Chan Naing/AAP

Australia is proud to call itself ASEAN’s first Dialogue Partner and it is important that we mark this milestone. It is fitting that Australia and New Zealand, the most proximate non-member nations, began the process of closer formal engagement with the Association of South-East Asian Nations four decades ago.

But what is the Australia-ASEAN relationship actually based on? Almost everything about us is different — our histories, politics, economies, and cultures. And though our aspirations are essentially the same — stability, cooperation, prosperity — they are pursued in a different style and at a different pace.

Despite being the first Dialogue Partner, Australia did not follow through with the first resident ambassador to ASEAN. Nor has it established a formal Australia-ASEAN Studies Centre, as can be found in Tokyo, Washington, Seoul and Delhi. Is our dialogue partnership with ASEAN a matter of mere symbolism? Or can we claim both longevity and substance?

There is no doubt that Australia and ASEAN have developed a productive working relationship since 1974. Free trade agreements, memoranda of understanding, capacity-building exercises, development partnerships and trade are all firmly in place.

Over our 40 years of dialogue partnership, these reliable and steady ties have become, as a Malaysian economist once observed, like “a long dependable marriage”. But in truth, the Australia-ASEAN relationship is a mismatch, a result of geography.

ASEAN values consensus and process; Australia strives for results and progress.

ASEAN is, inherently, committed to multilateralism, while Australia prioritises bilateral relationships with the major Asian powers: China, Japan and India.

However, after the Asian Financial Crisis (1997–98), a range of multilateral processes have been formalised: the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1994, the East Asia Summit in 2004, and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meetings Plus in 2011.

Australia has been a keen participant in all these developments. In fact, if we think about Australia’s involvement in initiatives such as the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) in 1992 and (though controversially) our involvement in INTERFET (International Force East Timor) in 1999, Australia has demonstrated a firm commitment to its region.

Among the ASEAN-10, Indonesia is also singled out, admittedly for good reason, yet this contributes to what could be called an ASEAN blind spot, a point recognised by only a small number of Australia’s Asia commentators.

John Blaxland, for example, believes Australia has been “mesmerised by the glittering prize of trade with China” and that “it is in Australia’s and ASEAN’s interests for closer collaboration, if not full ASEAN membership for Australia”.

Although historian Tony Milner does not believe Australian membership of ASEAN is appropriate, he has repeatedly argued that it would be to Australia’s benefit to nurture stronger ties with its region.

He agrees with Blaxland, stating that:

ASEAN does not have a high profile in Australia, particularly in contrast with the United States, China, or India. Most Australians would not see ASEAN as critical to our geopolitical future, and ASEAN leaders seem to know this.

In a practical sense, the Australia-ASEAN partnership is substantial. In 2012–13, for example, two-way trade with ASEAN (as a bloc) accounted for 14.8% of Australia’s total trade.

Does Australia’s failure to notice ASEAN, despite obviously strong economic and institutional ties, suggest that other, more subtle barriers impede our affinity with the region?

There are a number of scenarios we could examine when thinking about this, not just since the formalisation of the Dialogue Partnership in 1974, but earlier, to the immediate post-war era when regional relations were being recalibrated by decolonisation and the Cold War.

Moving closer to ASEAN, via APEC

In 1972, when prime minister Gough Whitlam ended 23 years of conservative governance in Australia, he re-oriented its foreign policy towards Asia — and ASEAN.

Whitlam began by revising trade agreements with the region and embedding support for ASEAN in the Indonesia and Philippines agreements. And, of course, the Dialogue Partnership with ASEAN was formalised.

Whitlam’s successor, Malcolm Fraser, oversaw the beginning of the annual ASEAN-Australia Forums in 1977, although Australia’s trade protectionism continued to hold the region at arm’s length.

It was the Hawke-Keating government that delivered one of Australia’s most important achievements in fostering regional cooperation, the founding of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), with strong support from Japan and the United States.

The purpose of APEC was to overcome barriers to regional trade at a time when the European Union (EU) and the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) were forming exclusive trade alliances.

APEC generally had the support of ASEAN although, as with Whitlam’s failed attempt to initiate an Asia Pacific Forum in 1973-74, there were dissenters, mostly concerned that APEC would undermine ASEAN centrality.

Australian diplomat Richard Woolcott and Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia at the time, Philip Flood, held discussions with Indonesian President Suharto who received the proposal positively. Flood noted that:

Indonesia, given its pre-eminent position within ASEAN, had the leverage either to scuttle the proposal or to give it a major push forward. If Suharto had said that there was a risk that APEC would dilute ASEAN, APEC would have been stillborn.

Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, however, had no intention of supporting APEC, expressing concerns about “Euro-American economies forming a trade bloc” in Asia. In December 1990, Mahathir proposed an alternative East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC) with the intention of excluding the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Despite this wrangling, APEC succeeded and when Paul Keating became prime minister in 1991 after eight years as treasurer he drove APEC forward. He transformed it from a meeting of foreign and trade ministers to a gathering of heads of government.

Although within its first few years APEC included all ASEAN members — plus China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the US and Canada, plus Australia, New Zealand — and it was clearly the most robust regional grouping of its type, ASEAN did not entirely dismiss the EAEC.

While ultimately the EAEC failed as an alternative — or even a parallel — to APEC, it was fundamental in propelling Australia towards closer ties with ASEAN. After the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98, momentum developed for more exclusive and resilient East Asian economic cooperation, and this resulted in the ASEAN+3 (the ten ASEAN nations plus China, Japan and South Korea).

By this time the Howard government had taken office. The new foreign minister, Alexander Downer, greeted the ASEAN+3 positively, stating:

We have made [it] clear that Australia welcomed the emergence of the ASEAN+3 grouping and that we would be happy to join it at some later stage if invited to do so.

From the ASEAN+3 to the East Asian Summit

The ASEAN+3 symbolised the next phase of regional institution-building, refining and expanding ASEAN’s capacity for multilateral engagement with external partners. It ultimately opened the way for the East Asia Summit.

Australia’s participation in the ASEAN+3 must take into account internal Asian politics. Wary of China’s dominance of the ASEAN+3 — and keen to retain ASEAN centrality — the Southeast Asian nations and Japan saw it as desirable to bring Australia, New Zealand and India into a formal regional process. An East Asia Summit study was undertaken in 2002 and the decision to hold the first EAS meeting was made at the ASEAN+3 summit in 2004.

Regionalism and the Bandung Conference

A condition of participation in the EAS would be accession to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (the TAC). The five founding members of ASEAN had signed the TAC in 1976, in effect reaffirming the historical foundations of Southeast Asian regionalism, which could be traced back to the Bandung Conference of 1955.

The treaty acknowledged ASEAN’s intention to cooperate in a spirit of goodwill both regionally and globally. It was, and remains, a “norm setting” document that acknowledges “the existing ties of history, geography and culture” in its preamble. It also acknowledges ASEAN’s commitment to regional and extra-regional responsibilities in:

DESIRING to enhance peace, friendship and mutual cooperation on matters affecting Southeast Asia consistent with the spirit and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, the Ten Principles adopted by the Asian-African Conference in Bandung on 25 April 1955, the Declaration of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations signed in Bangkok on 8 August 1967, and the Declaration signed in Kuala Lumpur on 27 November 1971.

The TAC was an instrument of “considerable symbolic importance” embraced by all of Asia.

ASEAN linked membership to the treaty to secure control over the shaping of its future course. It emphasised the non-interference principle and the “ASEAN Way” of dialogue and consensus-building. Linking the TAC to the EAS would also allow “the ASEAN Way of community-building to stay on track”.

This “norm setting” challenged Australia in terms of its alliance responsibilities towards the United States - not to mention agreeing to the ASEAN norm of non-interference - although Australia very much wanted to be a part of the EAS.

The Howard government initially refused to sign the TAC, a decision that attracted criticism in the region. It was a position exacerbated at the time by Howard’s “pre-emptive strike” posture articulated in December 2004 during the federal election campaign.

First asserted in 2002 when the Bali bombings of October that year were very fresh in Australian minds, Howard’s stance drew disapproval from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

In Australia’s 2004 federal election campaign, goaded by opposition leader Mark Latham, Howard said he had not backed away from his pre-emptive strike position. Coinciding with a refusal to sign a treaty affirming friendship and cooperation, a rather unneighbourly message was transmitted to the region. A public rebuke from Southeast Asian leaders followed.

Australia and ASEAN were not in conflict over the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation so much as they were at cross-purposes, the basis of which dated back to the Bandung Conference of 1955. In the immediate post-war era, very different foreign policy trajectories were being pursued: one along the lines of decolonisation and postcolonial fragility, the other following the ideological contours of the Cold War.

In federal parliament in June 2005, 50 years after Bandung, as well as stating that Australia would have difficulty with the principle of non-interference, Downer noted that:

First of all, in its [the TAC’s] preamble it talks about the Bandung principles. Australia has never been a supporter of the Bandung principles in the sense that we are not a member of the non-aligned movement – we never have been and under this government we will not be.

Downer’s reference to the Bandung principles was an insight into the longevity of the Bandung Conference as a “psychological moment” – as Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru put it.

That psychological moment galvanised Southeast Asia’s new leaders in a desire to ground regional solidarity in a formal process, and in 1967 ASEAN was the result. Australia had taken a rather detached, even hostile, view of the Bandung Conference at the time and consequently did not share in, nor directly witness, this psychological moment.

Despite Australia’s reservations, the treaty did not invoke non-alignment so much as enshrine guiding principles for cooperation. The example of Japan, South Korea, Pakistan and Russia showed it was possible to avoid non-alignment. They were, nevertheless, prepared to accede to the TAC.

In the end, the Howard government did sign the TAC and gained membership of the EAS in 2005. It did so on the proviso that accession would not affect Australia’s various security arrangements with the US, the UK, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore. Through this unnecessarily awkward process, Australia became a founding member of the East Asia Summit.

Future prospects

These past dilemmas — from ASEAN’s reticence in abandoning the EAEC while being a part of APEC, to Australia’s quibbling over the TAC in order to join the East Asia Summit — illustrate an underlying disjuncture in Australia-ASEAN relations.

The blind spot for Australia, ever since the Bandung era, has been its focus on extra-regional alliances - principally with the US, but earlier with Britain. This leads Australia to project an image of a nation that would rather be somewhere else, a nation that commits to regional processes on a provisional basis.

Yet these scenarios also demonstrate that a history of sticky situations in parallel with 40 years of dialogue partnership have not undermined, but might have even strengthened, the relationship.

The challenges now are about managing priorities in a region that is rapidly transforming in terms of the balances of power, the balances of interests and the balances of trade.

As we enter our fifth decade of dialogue partnership, it will also be important for the focus to remain on the strengths, rather than the weaknesses, of ASEAN. After all, there is no other regional grouping that provides a framework for cooperation between the region’s major powers —the US, China, Japan and India — its smaller, weaker nations, and all those along the spectrum in between.

Without Australia, ASEAN would lose very little, but without ASEAN Australia could lose a great deal.


Sally Percival Wood and Baogang He’s co-edited volume, The Australia-ASEAN Dialogue: Tracing 40 Years of Partnership (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), will be published in October 2014.