In March, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will welcome the ten leaders of ASEAN to Sydney for a special summit focusing on business and security ties. This is the first time Australia has hosted ASEAN. By any definition, it is a significant event in Canberra's diplomatic calendar, with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet taking on an across-government steering role in the long lead-up to the summit.
On one level, such an investment of time and energy demonstrates the growing prominence of South East Asia in Australia's foreign policy. Economically, it is a major market of over 600 million people, although it accounts for just 15% of Australia's trade. In security terms, South East Asia "frames Australia's northern approaches" and most important trade routes, and "sits at a nexus of strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific", according to the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.
Yet these same currents of strategic competition have also rudely exposed ASEAN's limitations as a supranational organisation, as less than the sum of its constituent South East Asian parts. This is particularly so on faultline issues like the South China Sea, where China has successfully played on intra-ASEAN divisions.
As a result, more of Canberra's diplomatic energies in South East Asia are being invested bilaterally and in new groupings such as the Australia-India-Japan-US quadrilateral – in effect bypassing ASEAN.
Canberra still sees ASEAN centrality as the main anchor for its big-tent diplomacy in the wider region due to its convening power over the 18-member ADMM Plus and East Asia Summit. Maintaining open and inclusive multilateral architecture remains a key organising principle for Australia's prosperity and security. Canberra does not want to see exclusive groupings emerge in ways that force binary choices between prosperity and security, or between China and the US. ASEAN has usefully muddied these waters by pursuing engagement and dialogue promiscuously, but at the cost of process-heavy obligations that eat into the schedules of ASEAN leaders, their beleaguered officials and dialogue partners.
ASEAN is more to be pitied than blamed for this. The 10-member association lacks real teeth for collective bargaining because its members consistently refuse to compromise national interests, or to cede sovereignty upwards – a point that many South East Asians will privately concede.
This mattered less in the past. But Australia has belatedly come to realise that it needs to do more heavy lifting in South East Asia, as questions mount over the US commitment to the region and China's economic heft and coercive footprint fills the space left behind. This is clear in the subtext of the 2017 White Paper, which emphasises Australia's bilateral relationships in South East Asia as a "high priority", alongside ASEAN engagement.
At the same time, Canberra's renewed interest in the Quad suggests it is actively hedging by developing alternative security structures that skirt ASEAN. This is something that past Australian leaders have been loathe to do. Kevin Rudd flirted with the concept of an Asia Pacific Community, but ultimately deferred to ASEAN centrality. But things have moved on, because ASEAN's strategic disunity can no longer be ignored.
The emphasis on "South East Asia" in Australia's latest foreign and defence policy white papers is also instructive. References to the "ASEAN region" are still popular in some quarters of the Australian foreign policy commentariat, where hope remains that Australia will one day join the grouping. But such proprietary terminology only flatters to deceive. Australia's engagement with ASEAN needs to be recognised as subordinate within a wider South East Asia policy, Timor-Leste included.
Canberra would like its various upgraded bilateral partnerships with countries such as Vietnam and Singapore, and "mini-laterals" including the Five Power Defence Arrangements and the Quad to be seen as complementary to Australia-ASEAN ties. Hopefully they are. But even as Australia prepares to stage an unprecedented ASEAN-Australia summit, Canberra is busy diversifying its diplomatic efforts partly in response to ASEAN's shortcomings.
Two major gatherings will be held on the sidelines of the ASEAN-Australia conclave, a business summit and a counter-terrorism conference. Terrorism, while important, is also a safe-bet denominator for security cooperation with South East Asia, given ASEAN's reluctance to overtly mention inter-state tensions and China's strategic challenge in particular. Several South East Asian defence ministers were recently invited to Perth for preparatory discussions on counter-terrorism, focusing on the potential flow-back threat to the region, as jihadists exit Iraq and Syria.
The ruinous siege in Marawi has shone a spotlight on the southern Philippines and the vulnerable urban environment in South East Asia at large as the next phase of terrorist challenges in Australia's region. Canberra has stepped up its bilateral defence assistance to the Philippines, including urban warfare training, taking advantage of the Duterte administration's positive disposition towards Australia. Australia's military capacity is modest. But without great power baggage, Canberra has opportunities to be nimbler than the US as it moves to deepen defence partnerships in South East Asia.
ASEAN still offers a worthwhile channel for Australia to help South East Asia counter terrorism and violent extremism, via the ADMM Plus. But there are risks attached. One is that Australia's focus on counter-terrorism could duplicate Indonesia's recently proposed Our Eyes initiative, involving six ASEAN members. Another is that concentrating too much on the military aspects of counter-terrorism could embolden regional militaries to take on roles best left to civilian law enforcement.
Yet counter-terrorism can offer useful "cover" for strategic security cooperation. Australian patrol aircraft sent to the Philippines during the latter stages of the battle for Marawi plugged surveillance gaps in the Philippine military's terrorist detection efforts. But they were also deployed in useful proximity to the South China Sea, to enable monitoring of China's continuing build-up of strategic infrastructure in the Spratly Islands.
Finally, the endemic problem of duplication in ASEAN-led processes could potentially undermine Australia's future counter-terrorism and maritime security capacity-building, including the trilateral Sulu Sea coordinated patrols, among Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
In light of this, Canberra should do what it can to support rationalisation and de-confliction efforts within ASEAN. This is one area where the Philippines was notably active during its year as ASEAN chair in 2017, producing a concept paper to cut back on redundant activities. The job of implementing these rationalisation efforts now falls to Singapore, the current chair.
One useful message that Turnbull could reinforce to ASEAN leaders in Sydney next month is the virtue of a "less is more" approach when it comes to meetings and summitry. That might sound a little awkward coming from the host of a celebratory summit. But it could help a lost ASEAN rediscover its much-celebrated "way".