Success in Asia will rely on deeper bonds of friendship with Asian neighbours warn visiting scholars

10 July 2013

Australia must demonstrate that it is a foul-weather friend of the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN), standing with Southeast Asia through thick and thin if it is to succeed in Asia argued Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak from Chulalongkorn University, Thailand last night.

Dr Pongsudhirak was speaking as part of a panel at a public discussion - Australia and ASEAN: Partners in more than Dialogue? organised by Deakin University’s Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation and funded by the School for Humanities and Social Sciences and cohosted withAsia Link.

Dr Sally Percival Wood said the discussion which included panel members Associate Professor See Seng Tan from School of International Studies, Singapore, Dr Avery Poole from Melbourne University and chair Professor Baogang He from Deakin University had been organised to consider the future of ASEAN as Australians contemplated their own place in the ‘Asian Century’.

“The release of the Federal Government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper in 2012, showed Australia is more focussed on strengthening its engagement with Asia than ever before,” she said.

“While it is good to see that the White Paper encourages engagement across a range of sectors, particularly beyond the traditional trade areas and into tricky realms, such as investment, its failing is its emphasis on economic relations with Asia, which reaffirms perceptions that, now that the region is booming, Australia wants a piece of the action.

“After many decades of uneven and sometimes fragile relations with our neighbours, this can create an unfortunate image of opportunism.”

Dr Percival Wood said the White Paper paid little attention to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which increasingly positioned itself as central to regional institution-building.

“Despite ASEAN’s importance in the region Australians appear to know very little about it,” she said.

“ASEAN presides over the region’s primary mechanisms for inter-state engagement – the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the Defence Minister’s Meetings Plus and the ASEAN Plus Three.

“The East Asia Summit (EAS), in particular, has become a priority area for the Australian Government, especially so since the entry of the United States and Russia into that grouping in 2012.

“The EAS comprises the 10 nations of ASEAN – Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – plus China, South Korea and Japan (which make up the ASEAN Plus Three), and Australia, India and New Zealand.

“With 18 member states, the EAS is now the most comprehensive process for engagement on a range of issues affecting the Asia-Pacific region.”

Dr Percival Wood said when the Whitlam Government came to power in 1972, Australia’s new Prime Minister acknowledged ASEAN as ‘unquestionably the most important, the most relevant, the most natural’ arrangement for the region.

“Australia became ASEAN’s first Dialogue Partner in 1974 and since then, a complex web of engagement has developed across a vast range of sectors, including education, agriculture, mining, cultural heritage, science and technology, medicine and infrastructure development.

“Despite this active working relationship, ASEAN is consistently characterised as a ‘talk shop’, it is suggested that it dithers over decision and policy making, and that the ‘ASEAN Way’ is a hindrance to real progress. “

Dr Percival Wood said until Australians better understood the historical currents that contributed to the formation of ASEAN and the complex diversity in the region that calls for very different diplomatic processes, it would not be in a position to take full advantage of the potential offered by closer ASEAN ties.

“Issues such as the movement of refugees through Indonesia and Malaysia into Australia, continue to be fraught with misunderstanding,” she said.

“Similarly, the suggestion that the Australian Stock Exchange merge with the Singapore Stock Exchange in 2011 aroused feelings of threatened national interest.

“Yet research by myself and Professor Tony Milner argued it is only by strengthening engagement with ASEAN, Australia can play a much more influential role in the region as power dynamics shift.’’

Associate Professor Tan said strategically speaking the Southeast Asian region is arguably less significant than, say, China.

“The one key exception is Indonesia, which has long concerned Australia for a number of reasons, not least strategic ones,” he said.

“I’m not saying Australia has ignored or will ignore Southeast Asia and ASEAN.

“Canberra clearly won’t.

“It will continue to engage Southeast Asia and ASEAN.

“But compared to China, which looms large in recent government white papers issued by the Department of Defence, and also in the Australia and the Asian Century white paper, Southeast Asia, as a strategic consideration, pales in significance.

“Is this approach good or bad? Well, it depends on whether Australia can see the Southeast Asia’s intrinsic strategic value.”

Dr Pongsudhirak said Australia was smart to situate itself – credibly and without Asian opposition this time – firmly with Asia’s future.

“It just has to take care with some of its assumptions,” he said.

“Canberra also should not ride roughshod over Asia, as was the case with PM Kevin Rudd’s aborted Asia-Pacific Community.”

Dr Pongsudhirak said Australia would do well to cooperate with ASEAN to keep the neighbourhood free of great-power dominance.

“In the coming decade, ASEAN will not want to have to choose between China and the United States,” he said.

“Australia’s most valuable token of friendship to ASEAN is to help ASEAN maintain its balance between Washington and Beijing in view of other great powers intent on pursuing their interests at ASEAN’s expense.”

Dr Pongsudhirak said beyond ASEAN, Canberra needed to be more nuanced and sober on the exaggerated Asian Century brouhaha.

“Asia holds much promise but is beset with intramural challenges at the same time,” he said.

“Its prosperity is as undeniable as its security is uncertain.

“By 2050, Asia may not at all resemble what one might think today.”

News facts
  • White paper on Australia in the Asian Century White Paper in 2012 ignores ASEAN
  • Despite ASEAN’s importance in the region Australians appear to know very little about it
  • By 2050, Asia may not at all resemble what one might think today

Media contact

Sandra Kingston
Deakin Media Relations
03 9246 8221 / 0422 005 485

Sally Percival Wood

Dr Sally Percival Wood

Tan See Seng

Associate Professor See Seng Tan


Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak

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23rd July 2013