Time for Australia and ASEAN to grasp the regional strategic initiative

Australia hosts its second home-based summit with ASEAN leaders in Melbourne this week at a time when, more than ever, it wants and needs ASEAN to be an effective anchor for the security order in Asia. Yet ASEAN is still striving to resolve its internal divides and leadership deficit to strengthen its leverage in regional and global affairs.

The summit celebrates the 50th anniversary of Australia’s dialogue partnership with ASEAN and seeks to advance Australia’s new strategic economic strategy towards Southeast Asia to 2040.

Like the rest of East Asia, ASEAN and Australia are trapped at the epicentre of what sometimes seems unstoppable geopolitical tensions — notably those between the United States and China. With globalisation having diffused political and economic power, no single country can unilaterally secure its resilience and sovereignty.

Strength and security must instead be found in cooperation, based on a comprehensive approach. With new economic and environmental threats, one country’s resilience to climate change or access to free and well-supplied markets for energy and food doesn’t come without the cooperation of others.

Crucially, ASEAN as the product of decades of Southeast Asian institution-building and infused with its small-and-middle-power ethos of cooperation and non-alignment, cannot be painted as a cut-out for the United States or for China. ASEAN makes Southeast Asian nations larger than the sum of their parts — through the association, they enjoy more diplomatic and geostrategic leverage.

This strength was on full display as Indonesia, with the wind of ASEAN behind it, successfully navigated the geopolitical minefield around hosting the G20 summit in Bali in 2022 and led ASEAN in the negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement to successful conclusion in 2019, bringing China, Japan and South Korea into a trade agreement for the first time as protectionism was on the rise elsewhere.

The rhetoric of ASEAN’s centrality as it engages with external partners is at the heart of these strategic ambitions for effective cooperation in East Asia, in Canberra, across capitals in ASEAN, Tokyo, Seoul and also in Beijing.

The summit with Australia will undoubtedly amplify the rhetoric of ASEAN’s role as an epicentre of growth and fulcrum for regional stability. It is a message the echo of which still has utility and diplomatic impact in managing relations with the great powers in our region.

The ritual invocation of ‘ASEAN centrality’ is a good reference point in defining Australia’s and ASEAN’s mutual interests in East Asia. ASEAN centrality encompasses the core economic and non-military security objectives that the Quad and Australia’s security relationship with the United States cannot credibly encompass. But whether ‘ASEAN centrality’ is any more than a puff of hot air in the crucial decade or two ahead will depend on how ASEAN, and its key regional dialogue partners like Australia, turn the exhortation into a harder-edged strategy to deal with the problems of the times.

What’s at stake is deeper than a narrowly defined security agenda, although a first step for ASEAN must be to forge coherence on that – perhaps by invigorating its core Treaty of Amity and Cooperation as an instrument of multilateral regional accord and a pathway to de-escalation of regional flashpoints. ASEAN must also come to grips with the issues that bedevil its negotiation of a code of conduct with China on the South China Sea, including by reference to the International Court of Justice tribunal ruling of 2016.

What’s at stake is the sustainability of the region’s prosperity, built upon multilateral trade and economic interdependence, with its deeply intertwined supply chains and outward-looking development strategies. The worry is about the bifurcation of the economy as countries in the region are forced by the great powers to choose sides — eroding their autonomy and limiting their ability to ensure their own comprehensive security — a pressure that will certainly intensify should Donald Trump secure a second term a US president.

ASEAN as a whole is already the third largest economy in Asia and the fifth largest economy in the world after the United States, China, Germany and Japan. It is now China’s largest trading partner and accounts for around 8 per cent of global exports, up there alongside the United States. The United States is its largest, and Europe a major, investment partner. And its above global average growth rate means that it contributes more than its share to global growth.

Its economic promise and potential accounts for the priority that the Australian government has attached to investing in its new ASEAN strategy.

East Asia is one place where multilateralism and integration still have a fighting chance against protectionism and hyper-nationalism. Asia’s homegrown multilateral institutions — including ASEAN and its Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, the East Asia Summit and now RCEP, especially its economic cooperation agenda — are powerful instruments for integrating security and economic domains through multilateral rule-making and cooperation.

The time is ripe for ASEAN and its dialogue partners, including Australia, to think not only about national security or military security but rather about how to reinforce their comprehensive regional security. Comprehensive regional security is multifaceted and embraces all elements of security — including military, economic, environmental and social aspects — based on the understanding that these interests can only be secured collectively in an economically interdependent and politically cooperative regional system that sustains regional development.

Established ASEAN architecture provides a foundation from which to reinforce the bulwark that such regional cooperation can provide in the face of the geopolitical pressures that Australia and ASEAN now face as East Asia seeks to transition to a more stable, multipolar regional order.

Australia’s engagement with current ASEAN leaders (and incoming Indonesian President Prabowo Subianto) in the sitzfleisch, or patient diplomacy, needed to deliver on this agenda is a top strategic priority.

Peter Drysdale is Emeritus Professor and Head of the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research in the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.

Mari Pangestu is former Indonesia Trade Minister and former Managing Director of the World Bank.

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