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ASEAN: different strokes for different folks, but future should be in sync

A Singaporean sychronised swimming team at the 2012 South East Asia Swimming Championships (Photo: Singapore Sports Council/Flickr)
A Singaporean sychronised swimming team at the 2012 South East Asia Swimming Championships (Photo: Singapore Sports Council/Flickr)
Published 8 Feb 2018 16:12   0 Comments

The ongoing debate about whether ASEAN (still) matters, and how important it is for Australia, could not be more ASEAN in style.

Euan Graham and John Blaxland represent the two major camps: ASEAN-enthusiasts and ASEAN-sceptics. The truth is that they both are right.

ASEAN means different things to different stakeholders. It is an institution composed of very diverse members and has taken up a very wide-ranging agenda. The strategic value of the organisation for its individual members varies based on their differing geopolitical situations and political leadership at any given time.

For older and newer ASEAN members, another factor is their varying levels of socialisation within the institution. And with such an enormous agenda, it is little wonder that where one member sees relative successes, another sees inefficiencies.

Regional disputes have been a high-profile litmus test for ASEAN’s effectiveness. The most prominent of these is the South China Sea, in which a number of ASEAN members, along with China and Taiwan, have overlapping claims. On this issue, ASEAN’s political efforts have been imperfect. Numerous regional forums have ended without reaching the (in)famous ASEAN consensus. It has been more than 25 years since the regional body began attempting to address the South China Sea issue; today, it may be getting closer to a joint agreement on only a Code of Conduct framework.

But the South China Sea is by no means the only dispute on ASEAN’s agenda. Transboundary haze or Rohingya refugees add to perceptions of a toothless ASEAN. Notions of reinventing the ASEAN Way, such as ideas for ASEAN Minus, are a sign of frustration over institutional imperfections. 

On a number of other issues, however, there is more room for successful multilateral cooperation, with increasing consensus on matters such as counterterrorism and transnational crime.

Expectation versus projection

The question of expectation persists: should ASEAN address such major issues, and if so which ones? In 2015 Singaporean Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan famously coined the metaphor of ASEAN as a cow, not a horse:

ASEAN is far from perfect. It certainly needs improvement and there are many areas where its workings can be improved. But a cow will never become a horse … we should consider how we can improve the bovine breed; how we can make a better cow, rather than scolding it for not being able to run as fast as a horse.

This boils down to the exact issue the body is facing, of expectations versus projection. But there is an inconsistency: while some want ASEAN to be assessed as an imperfect cow that does not aspire to be a horse, others desire glory and credit for the organisation. Communicating contradictory images and aspirations does not help create a consistent perception of ASEAN among its external partners. It is also not helpful for the following generations of ASEAN leaders, who will grow increasingly distant from its founding principles.

While debating ASEAN, it is important not to conflate it with South East Asia. John Blaxland is right to appreciate the importance of South East Asia not only as a region of high potential and growing importance, but also one susceptible to volatile changes.

While ASEAN is shaped by regional states, and vice versa, it does not equal South East Asia. ASEAN is an institution, and an institution is only as strong as its weakest link. It is assessed on its performance, not on how important its members are. Even with the ablest members, no organisation can excel without leadership and vision.

No doubt ASEAN matters – the EU aside, it is among the world’s most successful and long-lasting examples of regionalism. Yet complacency based on past glory is dangerous. What matters is how to keep ASEAN relevant 50 years on, and how to manage differences in perspective between its members.

What’s in it for Australia?

Amid geopolitical challenges to stability and some questioning of multilateralism’s virtues, collective efforts can be easy to dismiss. External influence can also diminish South East Asia’s regionalism.

But South East Asia is a region Canberra cannot afford to overlook. Australia has consistently supported South East Asian regional institutionalism, and should continue leveraging both bilateral engagements and multilateral frameworks. Canberra became ASEAN’s first dialogue partner in 1967, and has a longer institutional memory of the organisation than half of its members.

As a strong and consistent supporter of multilateralism, the rules-based order, and liberal institutions, Australia plays an important role in sustaining ASEAN’s institutional confidence and consolidating its sense of collectiveness. Such a role is particularly important in the wake of a power shift that has brought the role of international law in the global order into question. The Australia-ASEAN Special Summit serves as an excellent opportunity to reinforce that.

ASEAN matters and deserves credit

ASEAN flags on parade before the India-ASEAN summit in January (Photo: Mohd Zakir/Getty)
ASEAN flags on parade before the India-ASEAN summit in January (Photo: Mohd Zakir/Getty)
Published 6 Feb 2018 14:45   0 Comments

Euan Graham has given a glass half-empty explanation of the significance of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in an attempt to explain Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s enthusiasm for the forthcoming ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in March. In fact, there is good cause for the Department of Prime Minster and Cabinet to take on a steering role in the lead-up to the summit.

This is not only because ASEAN’s 637 (not 600) million people represent more than 15% of Australia’s trade, but also because when aggregated, ASEAN is Australia’s third-largest trading partner. ASEAN is not some optional, distant body with which Australia can afford to have equivocal and loose ties. It is Australia’s immediate front yard.

Almost as many students come to study in Australia from ASEAN (about 100,00 enrolled) as from China. Many Australian residents have heritage from ASEAN countries (896,000). Australia does more than $93 billion in trade with ASEAN. This is not a small fraction of Australia’s international trade, nor an inconsequential proportion of our community. Despite these significant figures, Australians tend to disaggregate the group, leaving ASEAN’s individual countries buried in statistical charts that instead feature countries such as China, Japan, and India.

There is a certain cavalier disregard among security pundits for South East Asia, who prefer to dismiss ASEAN as a “broken reed”. Many of them choose to focus on the great powers – on North America, Europe, and to a certain extent North East Asia, or even South Asia. But barely monolingual Australians really don’t feel comfortable mixing it with the ASEAN ten. After all, there is no one in charge. And which language of the ten does one bother to learn? What is more, ASEAN countries refuse to make decisions the way Australians would like them to. Often enough, they don’t even have the word “no” in their vocabulary, so getting a straight answer is devilishly difficult.

Yet for all its inconveniences, its insistence on form before function, on formalities and relationship-building before getting down to business, Australia is overwhelmingly dependent on ASEAN working and working well. ASEAN is an organisation that, no doubt, is easy to criticise. It represents a remarkable grouping of ten countries with different ethnicities, religions, economies, histories, geographies, political systems, strategic outlooks, cultures, and languages. Even its motto of “unity in diversity” is more of an aspirational statement than a statement of fact.

Yet despite the many aspects of ASEAN that can be criticised (some of which Graham picked up on), the organisation still happens to be terribly important to Australia’s security, stability, and prosperity. Not only is ASEAN Australia’s third-largest trading partner, but much of the rest of our trade passes through ASEAN waters to our top two trading partners.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo described Indonesia as the maritime fulcrum. He’s right. But it would be better to argue that not only Indonesia but the whole of ASEAN is the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific. This map graphically makes the point.

Map courtesy of Department of Defence.

That sense of being a fulcrum is also captured in the fact that it is in and around ASEAN that a wide range of important multilateral forums are convened, not the least of which are the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Plus construct. There are others. Indeed, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership model emerged from the work undertaken in ASEAN.

Self-righteous Westerners have no difficulty finding fault with ASEAN. But they overlook how this remarkable organisation has managed to make its motto of unity in diversity virtually a reality. ASEAN is not the European Union, with a central government and a common currency. But it has never aspired to be so.

It is also worth reflecting on what the world would look like without ASEAN. There is a genuine sense that it has been instrumental in keeping the peace and fostering prosperity for the better part of half a century.

To recognise the difficulties and the importance of making the ASEAN–Australia relationship work optimally, Turnbull is convening his special summit, as well as a counterterrorism summit, and a business summit. In my capacity as Director of the ANU Southeast Asia Institute, I am working with a consortium of Australia’s leading academic institutions, business and government bodies to convene the “ASEAN-Australia Dialogue: Partnering for Security and Prosperity in Uncertain Times” to further discuss shared economic, security, and political challenges.

The conference aims to examine contemporary issues where there are differences of opinion between ASEAN and Australia; explore opportunities and partnerships that can enhance bilateral and multilateral relations between Australia and ASEAN; share academic, business, government, and community insights; and focus on listening to ASEAN experts.

The dialogue’s overarching theme is “Partnering for Security and Prosperity”. There is much to discuss and much to reflect upon. But one thing that is not needed is a cavalier discounting of the significance of ASEAN to Australia’s future in the world.

Is ASEAN still central to Australia?

Photo: ASEAN Secretariat/Flickr
Photo: ASEAN Secretariat/Flickr
Published 5 Feb 2018 11:47   0 Comments

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".