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The parts within the whole: Understanding Southeast Asia’s economies

A decorative iron gate, Mandalay (Tessa Bunney via Getty Images)
A decorative iron gate, Mandalay (Tessa Bunney via Getty Images)
Published 1 Mar 2024 11:00    0 Comments

Southeast Asia is home to almost 700 million people and collectively amounts to the fifth-largest economy in the world. Over the past two years, it has grown between 4-5 per cent, close to the growth of India (between 6-7 per cent) and at times exceeding that of China (between 3-5 per cent).

The region is united through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in a way that goes beyond annual summits between leaders. States prioritise “ASEAN centrality”, seeking to collectively engage with external partners and set up the regional architecture. The ASEAN approach remains focused on unity at a time of global fragmentation, seen in the European Union with Brexit and in more recent geopolitical tensions in the Middle East and the Americas.

This cooperation is despite the nations of ASEAN differing hugely in their stage of development and size. Average annual incomes in 2022 ranged from $2,310 in Laos to $67,200 in Singapore. Indonesia has annual incomes of $4,580 and the largest economy, making up more than a third of the economic weight of Southeast Asia (GDP). The next five biggest economies are more evenly weighted – Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia each make up around 10–15 per cent of Southeast Asia’s economy.

Attracting international investment, including for the green transition, is a focus across Southeast Asia.

The turbulent global conditions emerging from the pandemic shed light on economic differences within ASEAN. Singapore, as a city state, is most exposed to global trade. As the global economy slowed, so too did Singapore: growth fell to just 1.1 per cent in 2023.

Conversely, Vietnam, which has the next-highest exposure to trade, has been more immune. Its large manufacturing base, low-cost production, and proximity to China has made it a key trade beneficiary as global companies shift to a China Plus One supply chain strategy. Combined with the return of overseas tourists, this partly explains Vietnam’s steady 5.1 per cent growth rate in 2023.

The post-pandemic recovery of tourism has been a significant economic force across Southeast Asia, in particular for Thailand's economy.

Elsewhere, rising energy commodity prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine benefited Indonesia (i.e. coal and palm oil) and Malaysia (petroleum and palm oil). More volatile electronics prices saw exports rise then fall in Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. More recently, rice exporters from Thailand and Vietnam look likely to benefit from higher prices – provided farmers can maintain production amid concerns of dryer El Niño weather patterns. Across the region, higher prices put the spotlight on food security.

Palm groves in West Kalimantan, Indonesia (Nanang Sujana/CIFOR)

Looking ahead, the flagship industries of countries hint at how each sees a path to prosperity.

Well-educated, low-cost Vietnamese workers power a large part of global video game development. Highly-educated Thai workers are key to Thailand’s medical tourism exports. English-speaking Filipino workers support business process outsourcing. Hydropower from Laotian dams is exported across Southeast Asia. And Indonesia seeks to use its market share of global nickel to move into higher value processing.

The electric vehicle industry is also in the spotlight as a potential new source of growth across Southeast Asia. Each country has a different pitch for the EV industry. Indonesia’s nickel is a key ingredient for one type of EV battery and Malaysia benefits from a deep electronics ecosystem. Thailand-led fossil fuel car manufacturing dominates the region and now Vietnam is home to Southeast Asia’s first US‑listed electric vehicle company, VinFast.

Country differences are important for international partners to understand, as any ASEAN decision requires consensus. Despite the diversity of its members, ASEAN continues to make incremental progress towards common goals.

For example, attracting international investment, including for the green transition, is a focus across Southeast Asia. A notable example of ASEAN cooperation to support this goal is the ASEAN green taxonomy. The taxonomy looks to agree a set of definitions for green activities, which can then be used to guide capital to green investments. Here, ASEAN worked to align existing national policy and reflect the views of all member states through consultation (with the latest iteration published just this month ).

Connecting the region is another ASEAN priority, notably for payment systems. ASEAN cooperation in this area has started narrowly. Payment systems were initially connected country-to-country, then broadened out into an agreement between five of the biggest countries (Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines). Last year, ASEAN leaders agreed to continue deepening payment connections across all ASEAN members.

Overall, ASEAN cooperation continues in the face of diverse economic interests. Like the rest of the world, it faces the challenge of balancing competition and cooperation. The short-term allure of undercutting Southeast Asian neighbours, whether on wages, regulatory protections or foreign investment incentives, is ever present. ASEAN centrality may provide a counterbalancing force. If Southeast Asia can leverage its scale and diverse strengths, its economy will continue to perform for its people.


What to watch at the ASEAN-Australia summit

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the 2022 ASEAN summit (@AlboMP/X)
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the 2022 ASEAN summit (@AlboMP/X)
Published 29 Feb 2024 12:00    0 Comments

Next week, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will host the leaders of ASEAN and Timor-Leste for a summit to commemorate 50 years of partnership. Thanks to the cancellation of the 2023 Quad summit, this will be the biggest international meeting Australia has hosted since … the first ASEAN-Australia special summit in 2018.

What’s on the agenda this time round?

A mostly new crew

Most of the ASEAN leaders will be visiting Australia for the first time, at least in their terms in office. This means a big focus will be on relationship building. The exceptions are outgoing Indonesian President Joko Widodo, elder statesman Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, and the long-ruling Sultan of Brunei. Ferdinand "Bong Bong" Marcos of the Philippines, Pham Minh Chinh of Vietnam, and Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim are undertaking separate bilateral programs to mark their first visits to Australia since taking office. Cambodia, Laos and Thailand also have new faces at the top, although to varying degrees each represents regime continuity.

ASEAN matters, but often sags under the weight of acronyms and bureaucratic initiatives.

Timor-Leste is now an official ASEAN observer, so Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão will join the Melbourne meetings. Australia has long wanted to see Dili welcomed into regional forums such as this, so will embrace Timor-Leste’s participation enthusiastically.

Finally, an extra guest: Albanese has invited New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon to cross the Tasman and meet his ASEAN counterparts.

A cut-through narrative

ASEAN matters, but often sags under the weight of acronyms and bureaucratic initiatives. Summit outcomes can proliferate – last year’s ASEAN-Japan summit announced a 130-point action plan. A US-ASEAN summit in 2022 suffered for a disjointed focus on disparate initiatives. Australia has set itself up for success by identifying a few key areas of focus: climate and energy; maritime cooperation; and economic ties. To differentiate itself from other dialogue partners, who are also competing for ASEAN’s attention, Australia will need clear and impactful outcomes that reinforce these priorities.

The ASEAN way (@SenatorWong/X)

Search for economic outcomes

The Albanese government has hung its hat on boosting economic relations between Australia and Southeast Asia, with Nicholas Moore’s 2023 report Invested providing a blueprint. The summit will include a CEO Forum and briefings to help Australian small and medium-sized enterprises do business in Southeast Asia. Sound familiar? The 2018 ASEAN-Australia summit was also preceded by a major report exhorting Australian business to seize the ASEAN opportunity and included a CEO Forum and SME Conference. New funding and government support is now in play to actively facilitate Australian investment in the region, but will it really shift the needle?

Hot button issues and controversies

Despite its absence from the summit table, Myanmar will loom large in Melbourne. It remains the group’s single biggest challenge, but, in the face of intractable conflict, ASEAN’s diplomacy has stalled. Australia has heavily backed ASEAN to address the crisis and will likely want to discuss Myanmar privately in the summit’s retreat session and bilateral meetings.

Despite its absence from the summit table, Myanmar will loom large in Melbourne.

More broadly, the poor human rights record of some ASEAN members means that some degree of criticism and protest on this score is always likely, including from diaspora communities in Australia. A couple of factors suggest that these issues may be less tense this time round, however: Cambodia’s strongman ruler Hun Sen, who goaded protesters in 2018, has been replaced by his son Hun Manet, who seeks to present a less confrontational global image. Likewise, the Philippines’ Marcos has struck a different tone from his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, even if he has not officially ended the “war against drugs” campaign.

Another source of potential controversy: diverging views on the Hamas-Israel conflict. Malaysia maintains ties with Hamas, which it does not designate a terrorist organisation. Anwar has rejected Western pressure to condemn Hamas following the 7 October attacks on Israel. Restating these positions in Australia would embarrass the Albanese government.  

The Albanese government’s policy of seeking stabilisation in its relations with Beijing, which plays well with ASEAN countries, makes public controversy related to China policy, including the South China Sea, less likely.


Southeast Asia's preferred military exercise partner

A US Marine familiarises Filipino Air Force officers with the Super Cobra helicopter during Exercise Balikatan, 2014. (Flickr/US INDOPACOM)
A US Marine familiarises Filipino Air Force officers with the Super Cobra helicopter during Exercise Balikatan, 2014. (Flickr/US INDOPACOM)
Published 29 Feb 2024 03:00    0 Comments

A special Interpreter series ahead of the 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne, 4-6 March. Read more articles in this thread.


The US remains the partner of choice for Southeast Asia when it comes to staging joint military exercises. The next two spots are filled by India and China, respectively.

Data from 2021 to 2023 compiled by Lowy Institute reveals that the US participated in around 33% of the 525 recorded joint military exercises undertaken by Southeast Asian states, either at bilateral or multilateral level. If we include Australia and Japan, Washington and its allies have participated in more than 60% of exercises involving Southeast Asian states.

While the US still dwarfs China, the situation is inconsistent across the region. Further analysis reveals a divide between mainland and maritime Southeast Asia. For mainland states (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam), China is a more significant military exercise partner. The exception is Thailand, probably because Bangkok has been a US treaty ally since 1952 and a major non-NATO ally since 2003.

Maritime Southeast Asian states (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Timor-Leste) have more joint exercises with the US. Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines all have maritime disputes with China regarding overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea. While Indonesia is not a party to these disputes, it has overlapping claims with China around the Natuna Sea. Singapore has had closer defence relations with the US since the end of the Cold War.  

While the numbers underscore Washington’s prominence as a security partner for Southeast Asia, a qualitative analysis examining the nature of these exercises reveals why Southeast Asian states generally place a greater premium on joint exercises with the US and its allies than with China. To comprehend this phenomenon, we need to understand why states participate in joint military exercises.

One reason is to enhance interoperability against a common security concern, primarily if the participating countries are tied by a security treaty that obliges them to assist one another in a military conflict. The US-Philippines Balikatan series of exercises is one example, with Manila and Washington bound by a Mutual Defence Treaty requiring both states to support each other if another party attacks them.

At the other end of the spectrum, joint military exercises can also be used to build trust between states, especially if they are rivals. The Aman Youyi exercises between China and ASEAN members is an example. China is locked in a maritime dispute with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea. Military exercises between China and ASEAN members aim mainly to facilitate interactions between their military personnel.

These exercises, especially the maritime ones, are generally unsophisticated. Interoperability is not the main objective. Several Southeast Asian naval officials explained that exercises with China are held due to political pressures from Beijing. As a result, they involve mainly simple activities such as passing and signalling. One official expressed the view that some activities were so basic they could be conducted with non-military vessels. Another added that Chinese naval personnel were secretive during exercises with Southeast Asian states and “fearful of sharing their capabilities”. Instead of developing trust, joint exercises with China could seed further distrust between Southeast Asian states and Beijing.

On the other hand, Southeast Asian states generally value exercises with the US and its allies, Australia and Japan, because they enhance military capabilities through the transfer of skills, tactics and operational concepts. The exercises tend to be more advanced, involving joint planning and operations. An Indonesian naval officer explained that exercises with the US Navy improve their interoperability. For the Malaysians, exercises held under the Five Power Defence Arrangements involving Australia, Britain, and New Zealand enabled them to learn how to operate in real crisis scenarios.

Washington and its allies in the Indo-Pacific should continue to engage Southeast Asia through joint exercises, which are highly valued by Southeast Asian states. For many, such exercises demonstrate Western interest in Southeast Asia’s stability. They also provide meaningful contributions to Southeast Asian defence capabilities, therefore acting as a deterrent to potentially hostile external powers.


ASEAN-Australia cooperation in the clean energy transition

The next boom: Ore containing copper, cobalt and nickel at the Andover mine in Western Australia (Paul-Alain Hunt/Unsplash)
The next boom: Ore containing copper, cobalt and nickel at the Andover mine in Western Australia (Paul-Alain Hunt/Unsplash)
Published 28 Feb 2024 12:00    0 Comments

A special Interpreter series ahead of the 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne, 4-6 March. Read more articles in this thread.


ASEAN and Australia have worked closely together over 50 years of dialogue relations in a wide range of cooperation areas including trade, economics, politics, culture and education. But the missing piece has always been climate cooperation.

The different starting points among the ten ASEAN members and Australia’s climate ambitions make it difficult to come to a common landing point on what is possible and feasible, despite the great interest on both sides for climate cooperation. The absence of an ASEAN-level regional climate mitigation target also makes it challenging. It would be easy to go down a run-of-mill route of providing capacity building, information sharing, and other forms of technical assistance, but typical is not the order of the day. New and innovative approaches are much needed.

The race to meet the world’s Paris Agreement target to curb a global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees and below demands a complete turn from using conventional fossil fuels to renewable energy sources for power generation, transportation, agriculture and industries. This urgency puts a spotlight on the production of clean technologies to harness renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal power.

According to the International Energy Agency, mineral production is expected to increase six-fold by 2040 compared to current levels in order to meet low-carbon production demands  and for the world to meet global net zero targets by 2050. Demand for critical minerals in the production of electric vehicles is expected to increase 30 times compared to present levels by 2040. A stable and reliable supply chain of critical minerals and metals to produce low-carbon technologies is needed, but this is becoming challenging given the heightened risks of geopolitical conflict.

Energy of the future (UNEP/Flickr)

Australia and partners in Southeast Asia are well positioned to play a role in the critical minerals and metals supply chain.

First, Australia has rich geological reserves, which are in the top five of the world’s key economic resources, including lithium, cobalt, manganese, tungsten and vanadium. Countries in the ASEAN region are also rich in metals and mineral reserves. Indonesia is a major producer of copper, nickel and bauxite. Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar have significant rare earth element deposits, as yet untapped.

Second, Australia has an excellent track record in sustainable mining practices and high environmental standards. ASEAN countries can benefit from Australian expertise through tech transfers, capacity building, and environmental management practices to improve their sectors.

The gold standard is finding ways and means to transition justly, equitably and in an orderly fashion.

Third, Australia has done well as a commodities leader but it can potentially be an investment leader in critical minerals processing. ASEAN countries are eager to move up the critical minerals value chain but have so far employed downstreaming policies that may hinder rather than help themselves, for example with export bans on unprocessed minerals in order to incubate their own domestic processing industries. Protectionist policies coupled with unfavourable investment incentives to draw foreign direct investment may end up hurting the sector in the long run. ASEAN can leverage Australia’s processing capabilities to ensure that a significant portion of the value chain remains within the ASEAN-Australia partnership.

Fourth, the practice of mining and processing is hugely pollutive and based on extractive principles that are harmful in the long run to a country’s development. If Australia and Southeast Asia are serious about sustainable development, then mainstreaming of circular economy principles must be an urgent priority. ASEAN has adopted a Framework for Circular Economy and Australia has an 80 per cent target for all waste streams by 2030. Perhaps it is time for both sides to leverage their capabilities and innovate in the circular economy of minerals and metals.

Finally, the gold standard is finding ways and means to transition justly, equitably and in an orderly fashion. Ensuring that the old economy workforce is upskilled for new jobs in the renewable energy sector is critical, whether ensuring that fossil fuel sector workers can turn to new jobs in solar photovoltaic panel installations or helping mechanics pivot to run diagnostics on EVs. Australia can help ASEAN retrain the workforce to be future-ready for low-carbon economies of the future.

Economic cooperation between ASEAN and Australia has grown over the last 50 years but mostly in plain vanilla cooperation – stable and predictable. The new economic strategy Invested: Australia’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040 illustrates the potential for change.

There is a strong strategic imperative for Australia to work with ASEAN in the coming decades but both sides need to consider which emerging area to make the biggest contribution to. Australia’s Critical Minerals Strategy 2023-2030 sets out the Albanese government’s vision to become a globally significant producer of critical minerals and supporter of diverse supply chains by 2030. This is followed through with a AU$2 billion expansion in critical minerals financing announced in October 2023.

ASEAN and Australia can leverage each other's strengths in the critical minerals sector to create a robust partnership to build resilience in the supply chain for clean technologies and contribute to meeting global climate goals. There are unique advantages on both sides and by working collaboratively, the partners can address challenges and capitalise on opportunities within the critical minerals market and stand in the gap of providing uninterrupted, stable, resilient and diverse supply chains in the production of clean technologies together.


ASEAN summit a chance for Australia to reach out to mainland Southeast Asia

Dancing hands, Prachuap Khiri Khan Festival. (Flickr/Troup Dresser)
Dancing hands, Prachuap Khiri Khan Festival. (Flickr/Troup Dresser)
Published 13 Feb 2024 10:00    0 Comments

A special Interpreter series ahead of the 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne, 4-6 March. Read more articles in this thread.


Australia’s diplomacy with Southeast Asia is poised to take centre stage in March as it hosts the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne. The Summit provides the Australian government with an opportunity to improve its standing with three mainland Southeast Asian states – Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand - in areas of security, economy, and education.

Australia is viewed as being of little strategic significance.

Australia’s relations with Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand have created both positive and negative perceptions of Australia. On the positive end, there has been a dramatic shift in perceptions of Australia when compared to two decades ago. Australia has risen in these countries’ estimation partly due to the increasing prestige of its world-class tertiary education degrees.

On the negative end, Australia is viewed as being of little strategic significance. When political, business and academic elites in each country were asked to determine a third party to hedge against the Sino-American strategic rivalry, Australia was not nominated as the most prominent partner of choice, falling way behind the EU, Japan and India. None of the three states in question regard Australia’s approach to dealing with China as a model to follow, with the country too heavily implicated in supposedly anti-China groupings stage-managed by the United States, such as D-10 Strategy Forum, G-7 and the Quad.

In security cooperation, the summit is a unique chance for Australia to relate to these states in ways that do not depend on geopolitical alignment. This reorientation first necessitates a move from a “security with the region” mindset towards what Misalucha-Willoughby called adopting a “view of Asia from Asia.” In practice this means not deploying language related to “great-power competition” or the “China threat theory” throughout the summit, as Southeast Asian states do not like any language that forces them to adopt a zero-sum position between two great-powers.

The elevation of bilateral ties with Laos to a Comprehensive Partnership last year as the latter began to prepare for its ASEAN Chair Year in 2024 is a step in the right direction but far from sufficient. Australia has to move beyond bilateral diplomatic relations towards the development of “minilateral” ventures with all three mainland Southeast Asian states in the ways increasingly commonplace inside ASEAN, a form of diplomacy involving a small group of like-minded states within a larger multilateral international institution.

Second, the summit serves as an ideal platform for Australia to regain economic ground by combining traditional development aid with more comprehensive economic integration. That is to say, Australia needs to better connect its recent sub-regional economic endeavours, such as the upgraded ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement and the Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040, with already expansive and popular country-specific development programs (i.e. Mekong-Australia Partnership and Partnership for Infrastructure).

Third, the summit offers a unique chance to strengthen Australia’s people-to-people connections through educational ties. The Australian government has long been effective at deploying initiatives in education cooperation, with the result that over half a million Southeast Asian students have studied in Australia in the past twenty years. However, the Australian government’s latest international education policies, such as the New Colombo Plan, approaches these ties too much through a market lens. International students are solely viewed in terms of a market opportunity.

The summit serves as an ideal platform for Australia to regain economic ground.

Australia should return to an earlier policy that viewed educational ties as a means to strengthen Australia’s relationships with foreign countries. In practice, this means that the Australian government should fund universities and vocational education providers to offer work-integrated learning opportunities to students from the three Southeast Asian states, as well as coordinating a nationwide initiative to engage alumni and connect them with businesses in both Australia and their home country.

Challenges remain for closer Australian relations with Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. The most prominent is the increasingly divergent political systems between Australia and the three Southeast Asian states. “Democratic backsliding” is transpiring in all three states but also broadly across mainland Southeast Asia.

Cambodia's former prime minister Hun Sen has handed over power to his eldest son, Hun Manet, but only after first barring the Candlelight Party, the only party big enough to pose a threat to his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Australia has been openly critiqued by domestic diaspora groups for its self-stated “quiet diplomacy” with the Cambodian government, which has not produced results on the ground. While Australia has limited ability to influence this trend, it can reinforce positive trends, like providing support for regional media organisations and think tanks, developing greater linkages between parliamentarians and civil society, and increasing governance-focused development assistance.

The 50th anniversary of relations with ASEAN can serve as a platform for Australia to not only celebrate its enduring ties with ASEAN but also forge closer relations with Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, contributing to regional prosperity and stability. Navigating historical perceptions while capitalising on opportunities and addressing challenges will be central to the success of this summit.


Australia and ASEAN: A storied history

ASEAN was formed in 1967 with five members – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand (Getty Images)
ASEAN was formed in 1967 with five members – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand (Getty Images)
Published 9 Feb 2024 10:00    0 Comments

A special Interpreter series ahead of the 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne, 4-6 March. Read more articles in this thread.


When the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed in 1967 with five members – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand – a major Australian concern was regional security, principally because of the continuing war in Vietnam. Australia had forces stationed in South Vietnam and Malaysia, and was a member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO).

At the time, Australia’s External Affairs Minister Paul Hasluck praised the new association and its stated aim of increasing cooperation among the member states. He noted that ASEAN had not only made a commitment to support economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in the region, but also peace and stability.

The Whitlam government was keen to foster ties with ASEAN and developed its first formal link with the association – the first such relationship ASEAN established with a non-member country.

However, security was not stated in ASEAN’s initial declaration and ASEAN did not embrace military cooperation. In the early years, it was mainly a consultative organisation. Until 1972, ASEAN did not play a significant role in the Australian regional outlook.

It was with the election of Gough Whitlam in December 1972 that ASEAN started to be viewed with greater significance. This new government was keen to see the demilitarisation of SEATO and was not interested in any replacement regional security arrangements. The Whitlam government was keen to foster ties with ASEAN and developed its first formal link with the association – the first such relationship ASEAN established with a non-member country.

After some initial overtures, ASEAN extended an invitation to Australia for a cooperative agreement. This was then formalised at a meeting in Canberra in April 1974. This meeting kick-started economic cooperation with a pledge from Canberra to make available A$5 million for ASEAN economic projects to enhance ASEAN-Australia cooperation. This would be implemented under the newly formed ASEAN-Australian Economic Cooperation Program (AAECP). Thus, in the early years of ASEAN-Australia relations, economic issues were the main preoccupation for the relationship, with trade playing a central role.

After some initial overtures, ASEAN extended an invitation to Australia for a cooperative agreement, which was formalised in April 1974 (Daniel Walding/DFAT Images)

However, security has also been important. And while the stated motivations behind the formation of ASEAN were economic, social, and political, an underlying consideration was that there were shared strategic interests. ASEAN had been formed during the Cold War and its founding members were all non-communist nations with individual security concerns.

When Australia became a dialogue partner, there was also a new sense of uncertainty in relation to security due to changes in strategic policies by foreign powers. Britain and the United States had made the decision to withdraw militarily from Southeast Asia in the 1970s.

While these strategic changes brought uncertainty, they also brought opportunity to the new regional grouping, especially with the end of the war in Vietnam.

The 1976 Bali Summit was the first meeting of ASEAN Heads of Government, and it considered the development of political and economic cooperation. The meeting adopted the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, giving more clarity to the association by providing it with a clearly defined charter. The 1976 meeting also adopted the Declaration of the ASEAN Concord, which called for a “program of action” for ASEAN cooperation.

Ties with Australia were strengthened after the second summit meeting of ASEAN Heads of Government in Kuala Lumpur in 1977. This meeting consolidated the aspirations declared in Bali and was the first occasion on which Australia and ASEAN met together at head of government level. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser announced a further commitment of AU$10 million to support the expansion of the AAECP.

There was further broadening of the economic relationship between Australia and ASEAN with the formation of the Australian-ASEAN Business Council in 1980.

Relations between Australia and ASEAN have often waxed and waned through the years.

However, defence cooperation remained elusive. Progress on defence and security remained on a bilateral basis and any developments were carefully distanced from the formal ASEAN structure. ASEAN officially remained a non-aligned and non-military association.

Hopes for regional peace and stability were further challenged after Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in December 1978. Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia received a united response from the ASEAN states seeking a diplomatic solution. ASEAN played a role in the negotiations for a peace settlement for Cambodia, as did Australia. Relations with ASEAN were seen as central in Australia’s contributions to the peace process.

Yet relations between Australia and ASEAN have often waxed and waned through the years. While there were high hopes for cooperation in the early years of the partnership, by the mid-1980s there was concern in Canberra that ASEAN’s perception of the importance of the relationship was in decline. This was enhanced by problems in bilateral relations between Canberra and the individual ASEAN nations, which included issues over Australia’s relations with Vietnam, human rights, and Irian Jaya.

Responding to the economic and political policies of the individual ASEAN members vis-à-vis those of the regional entity has been a major issue for Australia over the decades, especially as the strategic and economic landscape has evolved since the end of the Cold War and the expansion of ASEAN membership that now includes Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar in addition to the original five.

Nevertheless, the relationship has continued with Australia’s participation in several ASEAN initiatives such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, Free Trade Agreements, and the East Asia Summit. In 1974, Canberra saw ASEAN as an important vehicle for economic development that went hand-in-hand with internal Southeast Asian security, and this lay the foundations for Canberra’s continued acceptance of ASEAN as a significant regional forum.


Myanmar and Australia: A partnership paved with good intentions

Australia has consistently sought to assist Myanmar build capacities for change (Imagen/Canva)
Australia has consistently sought to assist Myanmar build capacities for change (Imagen/Canva)
Published 8 Feb 2024 10:00    0 Comments

A special Interpreter series ahead of the 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne, 4-6 March. Read more articles in this thread.


Myanmar-Australia relations before and after Myanmar’s admission to ASEAN in 1997 can best be described as paved with good intentions. No peaks or troughs occurred in Australia’s interactions with then Burma after diplomatic relations were established in 1952. Burma then was mostly distant and abstract to many Australians, although for Second World War veterans, the country was a reminder of the gruelling Burma campaign and of the Burma-Thailand railway constructed by Allied prisoners of war.

Burma’s visibility to Australia and Australia’s visibility to Burma came in the 1970s, when Australia’s then prime minister Gough Whitlam – under whose watch ASEAN-Australia dialogue relations were established – visited Burma in February 1974. Whitlam had visited earlier in the 1960s, as deputy leader of the Opposition. His 1974 visit was reciprocated by Socialist Burma’s leader Ne Win the same year. Prime Minister Maung Maung Kha visited Australia in 1984, seeking assistance for Burma’s development, including in the minerals and mining sector. The brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests in 1988 slowed any momentum for development assistance. However, Australia also maintained a position against imposing sanctions on the military regime.

A practical and constructive intent thus characterises Australia-Myanmar relations before and after Myanmar became an ASEAN member. Australia stepped up this approach during Myanmar’s brief decade of opening and transition over 2011 to 2021, to support political, economic, and social reforms in Myanmar.

Australia suspended military cooperation with Myanmar after the military’s violent crackdown on protests against the 2021 coup.

Australia’s development aid to Burma/Myanmar is thus a feature of bilateral relations, and has continued after the 2021 coup in Myanmar with a redirected focus on assisting the humanitarian and human security needs of the Myanmar people. Functional cooperation has continued, too, in trade and under the ASEAN framework. Australia is a primary supplier of wheat to Myanmar since the early years after Burma’s independence. Myanmar’s wheat imports from Australia in 2019 accounted for up to 90 per cent. Even after the 2021 coup, Australia supplied 63 per cent of Myanmar’s wheat imports in FY2021-22. Despite uncertainties resulting from economic mismanagement by the State Administration Council (SAC), Myanmar’s wheat imports from Australia will likely continue, as the preferential tariffs under the ASEAN-Australia New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (AANZFTA) offer lower import prices.

Australia has consistently sought to assist Myanmar build capacities for change. Under the ASEAN-Australia dialogue framework, Australia supported many capacity-building projects and activities involving Myanmar participants to expose the country’s security forces to international human rights standards. Australia’s approach to engaging military-ruled Myanmar was based on the belief that incremental engagement and capacity-building would help humanise Myanmar’s military and law enforcement and facilitate better civil-military relations. The ASEAN-Australia dialogue system provided a facilitating platform for Australian projects and programs supporting ASEAN’s overall efforts to assist the ASEAN Community-building project.

The Myanmar Police Force (MPF) was exposed to the ASEAN law enforcement network in 2005 through the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation (JCLEC) foundation, a joint initiative between the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Indonesian National Police, formalised in 1997. Australia provided the first training programs for the MPF under the post-1988 military regime in Myanmar, through such ASEAN-linked mechanisms, and maintained a stance that Australia’s engagement with the MPF was part of a global counter-terrorism initiative at the time.

Australia’s capacity-building support for the MPF continued under the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2016, the AFP signed a memorandum with the MPF to enhance transnational crime cooperation and intelligence-sharing. Australia’s practical stance continues today. The AFP shares intelligence with the MPF to counter drug trafficking. The rationale for continued interactions is based on a reasoning that keeping diplomatic back-channels open is necessary to prevent further inflows of drugs, such as methamphetamine, reaching the streets of Australia. This line of reasoning was initially voiced by Alexander Downer, Australian foreign minister at the time of Myanmar’s admission to ASEAN, on “drawing the regime into discussion on issues” of concern. That reasoning is also evident in Australia’s decision to continue providing training to the Myanmar military despite international pressure following the Rohingya crisis in 2017.

Aung San Suu Kyi, then Myanmar's State Counsellor, with Australia's then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull at Parliament House in Canberra, 19 March 2018 (Mark Graham/AFP via Getty Images)

Earlier in 2013, the Australian government under then prime minister Julia Gillard had announced its intention to re-establish military ties with Myanmar. A defence attaché was appointed to Myanmar, reviving a position vacant since 1979, and marking the initial step in a gradual approach to restore bilateral military relations, though retaining arms embargoes. Australia incorporated Myanmar into the Defence Cooperation Program (DCP), with specific budget allocations for capacity development programs for the Myanmar military, focusing on non-combat areas.

Australia’s first moves for capacity-building in support of tentative democratic reforms in Myanmar started in 2012, in the area of education. Australia’s foreign minister Bob Carr pledged US$80 million in aid to boost education in Myanmar, as well as boosting the number of scholarships for Myanmar students in Australian higher education institutions, and encouraging research and analysis capacities of nascent Myanmar policy institutes and think tanks, particularly during Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, an initiative further highlighted during the discussion between Aung San Suu Kyi and then prime minister Tony Abbott in Australia in November 2013, and again in 2018 when attending the ASEAN-Australia Summit in Sydney.

To many now, Australia-Myanmar relations will bring to mind the SAC’s treatment of Professor Sean Turnell, special economic consultant to Aung San Suu Kyi and now a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute, whose influential book, Fiery Dragons, helped many researchers in and outside Myanmar, grasp the trajectory of Burma/Myanmar’s turbulent modern history through the lens of its financial institutions. Turnell’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment following the 2021 coup, placed a strain on Australia-Myanmar relations. Nevertheless, Australia supported – via the ASEAN channel – humanitarian assistance for Myanmar for Covid-19 pandemic response and other needs in the immediate aftermath of the coup. Australia was among the first to contribute to the ASEAN pledging conference to support humanitarian assistance for Myanmar in August 2021.

Australia suspended military cooperation with Myanmar after the military’s violent crackdown on protests against the 2021 coup. Since 2022, Australia’s diplomatic representation in Myanmar has been maintained at Chargé d’Affaires level. Australia, like many in the international community, supports ASEAN’s response to the Myanmar crisis, and seeks to aid affected and vulnerable populations. All the good intentions of Australia’s engagement policy towards Myanmar, to humanise the Myanmar security apparatus through training, and provide a constructive influence, do not seem to have been considered or received as such by the military leadership now heading the SAC in Myanmar. In February, leading up to the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne, Foreign Minister Penny Wong announced further sanctions against the military rulers, saying: “We recognise that Australia doesn’t dictate what happens in other countries, but we can influence, and part of that influence – not the only part – but part of those is to utilise sanctions strategically.”


The role of Singapore, Malaysia and Australia in ASEAN centrality

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was established in 1967 in Thailand (Thianchai Sitthikongsak/Getty Images)
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was established in 1967 in Thailand (Thianchai Sitthikongsak/Getty Images)
Published 7 Feb 2024 10:00    0 Comments

A special Interpreter series ahead of the 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne, 4-6 March. Read more articles in this thread.


The ASEAN-Australia Special Commemorative Summit in Melbourne next month marks 50 years of dialogue relations and follows the Sydney meeting in March 2018 where leaders reaffirmed their commitment to ASEAN centrality and regional cooperation. The upcoming talks will allow Australia and ASEAN to review their achievements since 2018, including with Singapore and Malaysia, which share longstanding relations with Australia since before the birth of ASEAN in 1967 spanning security, economics and socio-cultural domains.

In security and defence, a defining pillar of relations is the multilateral Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), of which Australia is a member. This began in 1971 to help defend Singapore and Malaysia from any hostile power during their formative years and support a rules-based regional order. The FPDA should remain relevant today as Southeast Asia is surrounded by what Indonesia's former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa described as an “arc of instability”.

The warmth in Malaysia-Australia relations glowed when Australian senator Penny Wong visited Malaysia in 2022, shortly after she became Australia's new foreign minister.

Bilaterally, the Malaysia-Australia Joint Defence Program continues to be a lynchpin of defence relations. It promotes high-level defence policy discussions, training and joint exercises to enhance interoperability between both countries' militaries. The presence of the Australian Defence Force at the Royal Malaysian Air Force Base Butterworth in Penang, where the Integrated Air Defence System operates under the ambit of FPDA, offers strategic value to the defence of both Malaysia and Singapore.

With Singapore, defence officials from Australia and Singapore meet biennially under the auspices of the Singapore-Australia Joint Ministerial Committee. At the recent meeting in May 2023, they discussed the use of the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in Queensland by the Singapore Armed Forces over the last 33 years and the joint development of advanced training facilities there. Under the ambit of the FPDA, the Sembawang wharf in Singapore hosts defence logistical facilities where Royal Australian Navy vessels could dock and resupply.

In the economic domain, Malaysia and Australia inked the Malaysia-Australia Free Trade Agreement, which entered into force in 2013. In 2021, Malaysia and Australia upgraded their bilateral relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The warmth in Malaysia-Australia relations glowed when Australian senator Penny Wong visited Malaysia in 2022, shortly after she became Australia's new foreign minister. She described her trip to Malaysia as “balik kampung”, or homecoming, highlighting the socio-cultural relations between the two countries. Indeed, this is also defined by the fact that Australia is home to the second-largest Malaysian diaspora.

Kuala Lumpur CBD

Having signed the Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement in 2003, bilateral relations between the two nations received an upgrade when both formalised a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2015. The forward-looking attitude of both countries’ leaders came to the fore when the Singapore-Australia Digital Economy Agreement was signed in 2020, signalling the determination to shape emerging rules and standards for a secure digital space. The agreement includes the maintenance of submarine telecommunications cables, which are a critical global infrastructure. Indeed, relations have blossomed since 1980 when Singapore's first prime minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew, said that Australia risked becoming the “poor white trash of Asia” if it did not reform its economy and labour market.

Malaysia and Singapore should tap into the strength of their bilateral relations to keep regional cooperation alive including through ASEAN-centred mechanisms.

The longstanding and comprehensive relations between Australia, Malaysia and Singapore are a testament to commonalities in their strategic outlook. They are natural regional partners looking to manage risks and find opportunities in an increasingly uncertain Asia-Pacific. There will always be room for substantive and practical cooperation, especially in the defence and economic domains.

And amid the forces against multilateralism, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore should tap into the strength of their bilateral relations to keep regional cooperation alive including through ASEAN-centred mechanisms. For example, they could pool expertise to support Timor-Leste – in principle, the eleventh ASEAN member – build capacity in sustainable agriculture, natural tourism, digitalisation, maritime security and defence professionalisation. This effort would keep Timor-Leste in ASEAN's orbit and help it build the necessary resilience so that no major power, especially China, has an outsized influence there.

While Australia and ASEAN will reiterate their commitment to regional cooperation at the Special Commemorative Summit next month, it bears mentioning that China may become an enduring complicating factor in relations. Relatedly, anxiety over the future deployment of AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines to counter China remains among some ASEAN member states, including Malaysia. Another policy difference lies in the technosphere, where Australia has taken a hard stance against Chinese technologies (e.g., Huawei) compared to Malaysia and Singapore. Still, the greatest test of relations may be in the plausible scenario where a regional conflict sees China using diplomatic pressure on ASEAN to impel Malaysia and Singapore to exit from the FPDA.


Southeast Asian maritime security: Australia can help

Women buying crates of Ribbon Fish at pier, Luong Son, Vietnam (Flickr/Adam Cohn)
Women buying crates of Ribbon Fish at pier, Luong Son, Vietnam (Flickr/Adam Cohn)
Published 6 Feb 2024 10:00    0 Comments

A special Interpreter series ahead of the 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne, 4-6 March. Read more articles in this thread.


Southeast Asia's vast maritime space ensures trade, connects supply chains, and provides energy security. The sea is also a critical food source for Southeast Asians.

Between 1997 and 2021, the Philippines and Vietnam faced 97 and 142 cases of Chinese coercion, respectively. More than 40% of these incidents involved the display or threat of force.

However, the maritime space also contains many security challenges. These include disputes over maritime territories and boundaries, as well as transnational security threats such as climate change, piracy, illegal fishing and trafficking. Most Southeast Asian states face resource shortfalls to address these challenges.

Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei face critical maritime security challenges.

Hanoi and Manila have become the main targets for China’s coercion in the South China Sea. Data by Fulbright University Vietnam’s Dung Huynh shows that between 1997 and 2021, the Philippines and Vietnam faced 97 and 142 cases of Chinese coercion, respectively. More than 40% of these incidents involved the display or threat of force.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing further complicates the maritime security landscape. Hanoi has been struggling to lift its EU-issued yellow card for IUU fishing since 2017, while the cost of illegal fishing in the Philippines has reached $1.3 billion annually. IUU fishing also threatens Brunei’s fishing industry, a major source of revenue for Brunei’s economy and contributing to its diversification from oil and gas.

Yet Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei are constrained in their responses to maritime security threats. Vietnam and the Philippines have vast exclusive economic zones (1.4 million square kilometres and 2.2 million square kilometres respectively) but insufficient resources to patrol them, let alone conduct operations to deter threats.

Vietnam and the Philippines have vast exclusive economic zones but insufficient resources to patrol them.

Australia can help all three countries through its defence cooperation activities. Canberra’s security cooperation with Manila is the most comprehensive, supported by a clear legal framework - including a Status of Visiting Force Agreement (2012) and a Mutual Logistic Support Arrangement (2022) - and high-level coordination committees.

In comparison, Canberra’s security engagement with Hanoi is shallower and less institutionalised. The two sides signed several agreements on defence cooperation and peacekeeping, in which Australia provided language and specialist training to Vietnam. However, there are no dedicated coordination teams or permanent joint committees to discuss cooperation. In Brunei's case, defence cooperation is underpinned by several Memoranda of Understanding and a joint working committee, with a rotation of defence advisors to coordinate activities.  

These different levels of coordination and institutionalisation will make it challenging to arrange further initiatives. Given its historical ties and allied status to the United States, the Philippines will be more open to cooperation initiatives with Australia. Brunei and Australia have already confirmed their commitment towards deepening maritime security cooperation. Hanoi, conversely, adopts a cautious approach to defence cooperation with partners outside its circle of traditional friends.

Canberra should continue to initiate cooperation while keeping its expectations in check. Australia can tailor cooperation initiatives based on shared needs. For example, Vietnam and the Philippines have received significant assistance for maritime security, such as patrol vessels for maritime law agencies. Given their enormous maritime space and the range of maritime threats, Vietnam and the Philippines will use these vessels frequently, making maintenance and repair urgent priorities. This is an area where Australia could offer support, such as providing parts and training for mechanics.

Another area of cooperation might be countering the disruptive impact of China's maritime militia – one tool of Beijing’s grey-zone tactics in the South China Sea. In response, Vietnam has taken a page from China’s playbook by deploying its own maritime militia while the Philippines is contemplating this move.

However, the difficulty in countering China’s maritime militia lies in the fact that its very existence blurs the line between civilian vessels and warships, presenting various operational and legal challenges. China can deliberately mischaracterise robust measures against maritime militia as a use of disproportionate forces against “civilian” vessels. Australia’s support in this area can include enhanced training for Southeast Asian personnel on international maritime law, and consultations on common approaches and possible adjustments in the maritime legal framework to address this challenge.

The focus should be bolstering Southeast Asian states’ resilience against grey-zone tactics. China often hesitates to apply such tactics against more capable targets like Japan and India, which signals that Beijing will adjust its behaviour towards a more cooperative direction once it encounters a robust and determined response. These measures also contribute to the development of local experts on maritime governance who can advise their governments on maritime developments. 


Southeast Asia is the blessing Australia overlooks

Marina Bay Sands, Singapore (Kelvin Zyteng/Unsplash)
Marina Bay Sands, Singapore (Kelvin Zyteng/Unsplash)
Published 5 Feb 2024 10:00    0 Comments

A special Interpreter series ahead of the 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne, 4-6 March. Read more articles in this thread.


Too often in recent Australian domestic politics, Southeast Asia has been seen through a distinctly Cold War 2.0 lens. All actions undertaken by ASEAN member states are seen as being connected to the balance of power between China and the United States.

As Lee Kuan Yew was fond of saying: "accept realities".

Understanding the world in this way sees Southeast Asia as a region without agency, a subject to outside influence rather than a dynamic collection of states which influence each other and have tremendous economic and military importance to Australia. It is a unidimensional approach, seeing all policies from ASEAN members as bringing them "closer to" or "further from" China.

This chessboard view of Southeast Asia, which sees states as pieces and not players, is illustrative of an enduring lack of understanding of the region. Decades of increasing cultural exposure have not yet succeeded in familiarising Australia with our closest and most important neighbours. Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison joined a long tradition of Australian leaders who framed Australia as an outpost of Western liberal democracy above all else. This worldview sees Australia continually looking beyond the region for security. It invests Australia in a "clash of civilisations" like story where defending a "global West" in Eastern Europe or the Middle East is centred as a national priority and a moral imperative. Southeast Asia becomes relegated to a series of islands and peninsulas that happens to be proximate but remains alien. This worldview has endured even as economic links between Australia and ASEAN have grown to far exceed trade between Australia and its traditional security partners in Europe or North America.

Debates and claims about Australia’s identity obscure a reality that, as Penny Wong noted on ASEAN Day 2022, "we share a region, we share a future". No matter what happens domestically in China or the United States, or to what extent those two behemoths can  cooperate, the region is here to stay, and its economic and demographic heft cannot be ignored. As Lee Kuan Yew was fond of saying: "accept realities".

Jakarta streetscape (Rival Sitorus/Unsplash)

For Southeast Asia to succeed, ASEAN must succeed. Building domestic and policy-maker understanding in the nuances and contradictions of ASEAN, and how the organisation has developed finely tuned mechanisms to handle ambiguity, can only pay dividends. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has taken important steps since entering office to build these relationships, centring economic and people-to-people linkages.

Equally importantly, building a society that is the envy of the region will project Australia's liberal values far more successfully from Singapore to Hanoi than using a megaphone to quixotically demand value alignment from culturally distinct regional partners. Loudly proclaiming values is easy, living those values and keeping channels open even when there are significant disagreements is hard.

Tuning out the noise and bluster of the superpowers as they posture and compete for influence will allow Australia to focus on a relationship that is indispensable and unavoidable.

Engagement with traditional security partners in the region, especially Malaysia and Singapore, has been overshadowed by flashy, untested, China-focused agreements and pacts. Whatever the merits of the Quad and AUKUS, ensuring that historic links to our indispensable northern partners only grow and strengthen is of pivotal importance. Even through a purely Manichean lens of countering China’s global influence, Southeast Asia is, and will remain, more pivotal than distant regions where Australia is seeking to engage historic partners. Testament to the endurance of military relations between Australia and Southeast Asia, as Australian-ASEAN relations approach their historic fiftieth birthday the Australian military base in Butterworth, Malaysia, is nearing its seventy-fifth anniversary.

Invigorating relationships individually and collectively will ensure that any crisis in the region does not come as a shock for Australia. It will also help Australia and the many Southeast states that have, for good reason, become increasingly concerned about their economic reliance on China and in particular the critical materials over which Beijing has an effective monopoly. The growing manufacturing and industrial economies of Southeast Asia  compliment Australia’s strong mining, agricultural and services sectors.

Australia is blessed to have such a firm foundation for ever-deeper cooperation. Navigating another 50 years of relations with ASEAN will not be easy, but neither will it be intractably difficult. There are sufficient push and pull factors to draw Canberra and its northern neighbours ever closer together. Tuning out the noise and bluster of the superpowers as they posture and compete for influence will allow Australia to focus on a relationship that is indispensable and unavoidable.