ASEAN summit is diplomatic coup for Australia
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ASEAN summit is diplomatic coup for Australia

Originally published in Australian Financial Review

The unusual presence of south-east Asian leaders in Sydney this weekend is a major diplomatic coup for Australia.

While the leaders of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) have travelled to summits with the great powers, like the United States, this is the first summit outside of south-east Asia with a middle power like Australia.

It speaks to an appreciation in south-east Asia for Australia's approach to diplomacy in the region: cool, pragmatic, and focused on the long term. Gone are the vituperative spats between Keating and Mahathir, or characterisations of Howard as a deputy sheriff. South-east Asian leaders accept Australia on its own terms, as a society that stands up for its interests abroad and sets high standards of governance at home.

That does not mean that Australia will be joining ASEAN. Indonesian President Joko Widodo, when asked by The Australian Financial Review earlier this week if he would support Australian membership in ASEAN, said it "would be good idea". But the President, who is steeped in the deferential culture of his native Java, is well known for offering responses that appear positive but are in fact politely non-committal.

Even if Indonesia were to champion Australian membership, there would be a number of other members who would be opposed.

This is no loss – relations between Canberra and south-east Asian capitals are at a high, and open the door for extensive cooperation across a range of issues without the constraints of membership.

Deeper engagement with ASEAN as an institution can be useful. To a large extent, ASEAN has become the arbiter of what is legitimate in the region's geopolitics. It is the ASEAN countries that convene most of east Asia's big multilateral summits, setting the agenda and crafting statements on the discussions – statements which are examined in detail by scholars and diplomats for signs of the slightest shift in regional alignments. The deeper Australia's engagement, the more influence it will have in these councils.

Increasingly divided

Over the last several years, however, ASEAN has become increasingly divided along economic and nationalist lines. The weakest states have become increasingly captive to their economic relationships with Beijing, and feel obligated to support China's positions on issues such as the disputes in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, governments in Indonesia and Malaysia are under popular pressure to confront Myanmar over its treatment of the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority, whereas the majority Buddhist countries of mainland south-east Asia have been broadly sympathetic to Myanmar. As a result, ASEAN has been ineffective in addressing two of the biggest challenges in the region.

Divisions among ASEAN members are mirrored within individual south-east Asian countries. The politics of populism, religious conservatism and ethno-nationalism are leading to more fragile societies, and leaders focused on domestic matters before resolving the big regional issues.

Indonesia was once considered the first among equals in regional diplomacy, but Jokowi is a former mayor focused on fighting intolerance and resolving quotidian problems at home. The absence of a strong Indonesian diplomat at the helm in Jakarta has left ASEAN directionless at key moments in the past three years.

Dismal human rights records

The other obvious candidates for leadership all have their own problems. The leaders of the Thai junta that seized power in 2014 have never been entirely at home on the world stage, and are preparing a transition to a quasi-democratic system in the year ahead. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been beleaguered by ethnic politics and a $US2.6 billion ($3.3 billion) corruption scandal.

And the earthy Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, another former mayor, is no one's idea of a statesman. Each of the three have dismal human rights records, which have led some to question whether they should have been invited to Sydney at all.

Yet these questions are rarely asked when Australia hosts their Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping. Australians understand that they need a strong relationship with China, given its economic might and the outsized role it will play in great-power politics in the decades to come. We should adopt a similar attitude toward our south-east Asian neighbours.

Apart from anything else, a good relationship offers the opportunity to engage south-east Asian leaders, and to argue for increased public space and attention to rule of law. Disagreement, not disengagement, is the better solution.

Areas of expertise: Southeast Asian politics and foreign policy; the US role in East Asia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the South China Sea