Published daily by the Lowy Institute

ASEAN is not South East Asia

Australia’s relations with the region are not mediated by a lightly institutionalised inter-governmental institution.

Photo: Ilocos Norte/Flickr
Photo: Ilocos Norte/Flickr
Published 13 Mar 2018 

The upcoming ASEAN-Australia Special Summit has led to a surge in analysis of the Association of South East Asian Nations and Australia-ASEAN relations in Australia.

In February, ASPI released a special report by Graeme Dobell recommending Australia seek ASEAN membership claiming that ASEAN is Australia’s third largest trading partner after China (a country) and the European Union (a customs union). John Blaxland, on The Interpreter, argued “Australia is overwhelmingly dependent on ASEAN working and working well,” while claiming that ASEAN has 637 million people and accounts for $93 billion dollars of Australia’s international trade last year. The Australian Government concurs with this ASEAN trade figure and predicts that ASEAN’s population will reach 685 million by 2022.

Unfortunately, these figures are not ASEAN figures at all but aggregate figures for the 10 diverse countries of South East Asia. ASEAN does not trade nor does it have a population (beyond, possibly, the few hundred that work at the underfunded ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta).

This conflation of ASEAN, a lightly institutionalised inter-governmental institution, with South East Asia, the region its member-states comes from, is extremely common and very hard to avoid. However, it is best avoided as it is intellectually distorting, and leads to bad policy recommendations.

The trade figures highlight this distortion problem very well. Unlike Europe and the European Union, South East Asian states have not created a custom union through ASEAN, nor have South East Asian states surrendered sovereign rights to negotiate trade agreements to the ASEAN Secretariat.

Australia has three existing free trade agreements with South East Asian states – Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand – that are deeper than the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement. These three states account for close to two-thirds of Australia’s trade with South East Asia and are home to more than three-quarters of Australia’s foreign direct investment stock in South East Asia. Four South East Asian states are TPP-11 signatories and seven are among the 21 member economies of APEC.

The other 10 states that signed the TPP-11 agreement along with Australia last week in New Zealand are a much larger “trading partner” for Australia than the 10 economies of South East Asia, as are the other 20 APEC economies. Last year, Australian trade with the other TPP-11 economies was 1.6 times larger than with South East Asia and the other TPP-11 economies hosted 3.5 times more Australian foreign direct investment than the 10 economies of South East Asia.  

These South East Asian aggregate figures should not be used as a reason for attempting to elevate Australia’s current dialogue partner relations with ASEAN that are focus of this week’s Summit or to claim that Australia is dependent, overwhelmingly or not, on ASEAN. Even South East Asian states are not dependent on ASEAN.

The silence of ASEAN on the plight of Rohingya in Myanmar speaks volumes to this point. The first principle of analysing ASEAN and Australia’s dialogue partner relationship with ASEAN is to not conflate Australia’s dialogue partner relations with ASEAN with Australia’s much deeper and broader relations with South East Asian states that are, mostly, not mediated through ASEAN.

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