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ASEAN Summit wrap: living with neighbours, managing China’s alternative, and bridges to somewhere

From missed media moments to remarkable bridges, Greg Earl on the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit.

Photo: ASEAN-Australia Special Summit 2018/Flickr
Photo: ASEAN-Australia Special Summit 2018/Flickr

Democratic dividends

Sitting in the largely lifeless media centre of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s $56-million grand diplomatic gambit, it was hard not to be struck by the irony of Australia’s earnest embrace of the ASEAN way, with its emphasis on consultation and non-intervention.

The two biggest stories of the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit came from a central Java furniture maker who gave life to the idea that Australia is actually an Asian country, and from the scion of the Malay establishment who stood up for the region’s latest abused minority. 

No, it wasn’t Australian journalists shoving microphones up the noses of po-faced autocrats in black suits that injected some competitive tension into this summit. It was the two representative faces of the region’s difficult passage into more modern government.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s positive answer to a question about whether Australia could join ASEAN (see Daniel Flitton here) can be parsed in different ways (see Aaron Connelly here). But, along with his funny lunch speech about politics and social media, Jokowi’s position underlines that he is the unlikely flag-bearer for democracy (see Angus Grigg here), despite jibes about him being a homophobic Suharto-wannabe.

Meanwhile, the suave Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was playing more to a Malay Muslim domestic audience and less to Naypyidaw, and showed that public accountability still matters in youthful, wireless South East Asia despite the recent democratic setbacks. Despite their failures to fully usher in democratic change, the rulers of Malaysia (and Singapore for that matter) are very attuned to popular sentiment.

Being there and just talking

Turnbull and his officials have skilfully manoeuvred democratic pitfalls in the region over the past two years to produce this summit and its remarkable array of diverse side-events, in pursuit of the Foreign Policy White Paper idea that South East Asia contains some valuable partners in an uncertain world.

While Widodo’s membership gambit might have only drawn attention to how few real breakthroughs would emerge from the summit, it also highlighted how being there and just talking is a big part of why the region has been a much more peaceful place than it was back in 1967, when ASEAN started.

The headline-grabbing antics of Widodo and Najib show that it is really about how we say things, rather than what we say. And the Australian bureaucratic concern about public debate upsetting the relationship that hung over the soulless media centre seems to miss the fact that all these countries have a vibrant social media life and, in many cases, more brave, unruly journalists than Australia.

While this was money well spent on vital international engagement, it was a bit rich for Turnbull to be claiming at Sunday’s closing media conference that the business events “put the accelerator on Australian economic engagement with ASEAN”.

Time will tell, and I certainly hope he’s right. But how will we know?

In 25 years of reporting on South East Asia, the most common question I’ve been asked is why journalists don’t report the positive stuff about the region’s modernisation. I was lucky enough to get into the small- and medium-enterprise conference on Friday as a member of the Australia-ASEAN Council, not as a reporter. The fantastic array of thoughts from visiting South East Asian business people should have been webcast to the country like the Asialink State of the Nation series was in the run-up to the summit. After all, much of the discussion was about e-commerce.

The CEO Summit roundtable structure warranted greater privacy, but where was the disclosure of what business told the leaders, which is standard fare at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group and even ASEAN’s own parallel Leaders’ Summit business events? One of my colleagues had more access to business discussions at recent Chinese international events than at the weekend summit, which had a key objective of raising Australian business awareness about ASEAN opportunities.

Perhaps the organisers should have asked Widodo and Najib how they would do it.  

City diplomacy

Australia’s plan to work with South East Asian countries on city planning and infrastructure design is a welcome, subtle step into what may well be the new geopolitical frontline over infrastructure development. The understated measures are very forward-looking in their own right, given the challenge of urbanisation across the region.

But they may well sync with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s own forward plans to improve infrastructure development governance in response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). There is a lot of water to flow under unbuilt bridges in the quest to fill Asia’s infrastructure demand of approximately US$26 trillion over the next 15 years. But it is more productive to be developing transparent ways to spend this mostly unsourced money well than it is to be complaining that China is putting its cash on the table in sometimes opaque ways.

Political hardheads, such as Malaysia’s Najib Razak, know they have to deliver public services to their rising middle class, even if it means cutting corners on democratic niceties. This explains why they are snapping up BRI funding. This is an opportunity for Australia to accept the geopolitical reality of infrastructure competition and bring our recognised skills to bear.

While the Sydney Declaration largely covers familiar territory, one intriguing addition which may allow for for more institutional integration, without getting tied up over ASEAN membership, is a plan for Australia to strengthen “subregional cooperation frameworks as test beds to accelerate the development and implementation of ASEAN agreements”.

Bridge building

Forget “Indo-Pacific” and ASEAN “centrality”; surprisingly, the phrase that stayed with me through the summit week was “Friendship Bridge”.

That’s the Mekong River crossing between Laos and Thailand announced by former Prime Minister Bob Hawke and then built as an aid project in the early 1990s. It is an old story, but both a legacy and a benchmark.

Thai commentator Kavi Chongkittavorn says it was the best Australian move ever, done remarkably cheaply and quickly compared with today’s infrastructure. Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, who was a negotiator back then, says the bridge transformed his country and he will always be grateful for it.

But Vietnam ambassador Craig Chittick says a measure of the new mature regional relationship is the way aid has moved from bridges to governance advice. There’s just the little question of what will be remembered.

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