Australia has long been spoilt by its splendid isolation – surrounded as it is by friends and fish – while engaging Asia separately and further afield. Whereas many of our south-east Asian counterparts are busy firefighting unresolved territorial disputes and legacies of interstate conflict with larger neighbours, we have the luxury of time and space to contemplate ways of building a favourable – and preferably peaceful – balance of power in the broader Indo-Pacific. Our defence and foreign policy white papers, as an example of strategic thinking put into practice, are the envy of the region.
This strategic exceptionalism has even led to split personalities in the conduct of our foreign policy, characterised by a Pacific inner ring where Australia is the dominant resident power and will, alone if necessary, use military force to achieve its core interests; and a south-east Asian outer ring where Australia is a middle power that must work with and through equals to pursue a rules-based and inclusive regional order. If we had it our way, never the twain shall meet.
Yet, now that China looms larger in our near abroad, the government has shifted the balance of its attention and resources from an aspirational outer ring to a more pessimistic and defensive focus on its Pacific inner ring.
The high-water mark of Australia’s south-east Asian ambitions was reached in March 2018, when then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull hosted nine of his south-east Asian counterparts at a special ASEAN summit Down Under, the first in our 45-year relationship with the regional bloc.
Alas the warm afterglow of the Sydney summit did not last long. Less than eight months later, a different prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced in November 2018 that Australia was “returning the Pacific to where it should be – front and centre of Australia’s strategic outlook”. The Pacific "Step-up", designed to maintain Australia’s coveted role as the partner of choice for economic and security co-operation in our near abroad, has occupied the airwaves and much of the policy space ever since. Canberra has become beset by hegemonic angst at losing its sphere of influence.
The trouble is that the Pacific Step-up also looks suspiciously like a south-east Asia step-down. This concern was raised at a closed-door dialogue held in Singapore last week organised by three research institutes – Brookings, Lowy and RSIS. Malaysian Deputy Defence Minister Liew Chin Tong’s remarks at the conference were delivered under Chatham House rules. However, he later voiced his thoughts publicly: “I often wonder nowadays where Australia’s Asia dream has gone. At one point, Australia was pushing hard to be considered a part of Asia. That ambition is disappearing.”
We share the greatest overlap of geographically derived interests with the middle powers of south-east Asia. The reality is that the resilience of south-east Asia functions as the protective membrane for our own prosperity and security. This has been obscured by the waves of panic that have rippled through Canberra following rumours that one or more Pacific island states could host a Chinese military base. The irony is the sheer remoteness of Australia makes the territorial invasion of the sixth largest country by landmass very unlikely. The same cannot be said of many south-east Asian countries, whose geographies play far more directly into their strategic vulnerability.
To prevent a hollowing out of our Indo-Pacific strategy, we will have to re-engage south-east Asia and look for ways to bridge two distinct geopolitical games rather than seek to build walls between the Pacific and the greater region. Our variable geometry – bilateral and trilateral – arrangements with countries such as Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia are well suited to do this.
ASEAN is often dismissed as an inadequate and anachronistic mechanism for navigating the pressures of great-power politics. It is true that a one-size-fits-all ASEAN approach to external strategic balancing will not work. However, ASEAN-centred diplomacy continues to offer a basic level of inclusiveness and co-operation between south-east Asia and the multipolar powers of the Indo-Pacific.
Australia should rediscover its confidence as a middle player that looks to the positives and potential of the broader region coming together through trade and strategic partnerships. Negotiations to secure the world’s largest trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, offer a case in point of how ASEAN provides a suitably non-aligned alternative to Sino-centric regional designs such as the Belt and Road Initiative.
Meanwhile, our attempts to maintain strategic primacy in the Pacific will falter if they come at the expense of wider issues of concern to our Pacific neighbours. Countries that straddle the boundaries of south-east Asia – such as Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, Palau and Fiji – increasingly aspire to an Asian economic future. Without acknowledging and facilitating their aspirations, China’s economic overtures may only find greater traction in the region.
Canberra is uniquely placed to facilitate and deepen cross-regional linkages between south-east Asia and the Pacific. Australia should explore ways of bringing the largest Pacific neighbours into contact with east Asia’s big-tent diplomacy. This would help to diversify their international relations, socialise their leaders into wider strategic debates, encourage agency and minimise the risk that these countries are treated simply as pawns in great power rivalry.
For south-east Asia, such an initiative would help to prove the strategic relevance of ASEAN as a convening body at the core of any durable Indo-Pacific balance of power.