Australia’s relationships with countries in Southeast Asia are not bad. The prime minister or foreign minister could happily turn up in any regional country and receive a warm welcome. Last year, Australia signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – one of just two countries to receive this accolade (the other was China). Over the course of the current government, partnerships with Thailand and Malaysia have been stepped up. The government has also promised economic engagement with Vietnam, and work on the green economy with Singapore.

Yet Australia’s next government, whether Coalition or Labor, would do well to dig below the surface and explore whether relations with Southeast Asia are as strong as they might seem.

Growing divergence

The next government should start with a stocktake of Australian ministerial engagement with the region, comparing stated commitments with actual achievements. Consider that the last Australian prime minister to make a bilateral visit to Thailand (as opposed to one for a multilateral meeting, which do not register the same impact) was John Howard, in 1998. The last Australian prime minister to make a standalone visit to the Philippines was also John Howard, in 2003. Political instability in Thailand has doubtless been a factor, but almost every other relationship in Southeast Asia, except perhaps for Singapore, has some such story of patchy engagement, especially when it comes to contact between trade ministers.

The 2018 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit hosted by Malcolm Turnbull was a bright spot, yet follow-up visitors from the region have been thin on the ground – exceptions include ministers from Malaysia who visited in 2019, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo who came in early 2020 before pandemic travel restrictions were implemented.

Southeast Asian countries have not been seen as delivering bang for buck when it comes to the travel schedule for the PM, and ministers for foreign affairs, trade and defence.

Ministerial neglect happens regardless of which party is in power in Canberra because Southeast Asian countries have not been seen as delivering bang for buck when it comes to the travel schedule for the PM, and ministers for foreign affairs, trade and defence.

This neglect is only likely to increase over coming years because many regional countries do not share Australia’s bipartisan judgement that a balancing strategy by a US-led coalition is the best way to maintain regional order. Barring a catastrophic overreach by China, which would raise regional threat perceptions, this may not change.

Moreover, countries in Southeast Asia do not see Australia’s approach to dealing with China as a model to follow, though it has bipartisan support in Canberra. Over time, this will have a real impact on Australia’s interactions with them. Contrast, for example, Malaysia’s welcome of China’s interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) with Australia’s rejection of the prospect.

Last year, Australia signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with ASEAN – one of just two countries to receive this accolade, the other being China (Antony Fleyhan /Expo 2020 Dubai via ASEAN Secretariat)
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Too often, speeches by Australian political leaders over the past five years have sought to portray Southeast Asian countries as sharing Australia’s vision for the Indo-Pacific. This is true only at the most basic level: all countries want security and prosperity.

The central foreign policy plank of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Lowy Institute address was “building webs of alignment”. It is telling that it was under this banner that he elaborated on Australia’s relationships in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. This narrative implicitly shoehorns these relationships into the broader geopolitical agenda that Canberra is pursuing against China.  

What can be achieved?

Australia’s next government needs to avoid framing foreign policy with the region in terms of strategic alignment. Instead, the focus must be laser-sharp on promoting regional countries’ own capabilities and strength, whether in terms of economic development or defence capacity, and independently of their positions on China.

In a recent conversation with Center for Strategic & International Studies Australia Chair Charles Edel, shadow foreign minister Penny Wong emphasised that Labor would attach greater priority to Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia. She has also said that Labor would appoint an ASEAN Special Envoy and provide additional development assistance to the Indo-Pacific. Opposition leader Anthony Albanese has also committed to a climate and infrastructure partnership with Indonesia.

Of note, the last Australian prime minister to make a bilateral visit to Cambodia was Paul Keating, in 1992.

This is good, but alone is unlikely to be transformative in practice, given that Labor has agreed with the Coalition on many of the fundamental policy settings that drive Australia’s outlook on the region.  

Reshaping relations with the region would require Canberra to accord real weight to Southeast Asian perspectives, in particular those from Indonesia. For example, when Australia is deliberating on its policies in the Middle East, or whether Russia should be suspended from the G20, or forming new minilateral groupings, it needs to seriously weigh regional perspectives. Sometimes on these issues, Australia would need to make compromises. Recent experience suggests this may not come naturally to Australia.

In addition, political-level engagement would need to be prioritised; engagement by secondary envoys is no substitute. If Australia wants evidence that high-level contact with the region can make a difference, it should ask Japan. Only after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s recent visit to Cambodia did Prime Minister Hun Sen begin referring to Russia’s actions in Ukraine as an “invasion”. Of note, the last Australian prime minister to make a bilateral visit to Cambodia was Paul Keating, in 1992. Kishida is now reportedly planning further travel in the region, including to coordinate on the vexed question of Russian attendance at the G20.