Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's pledge to hold an ASEAN-Australia leaders' summit in 2018 is a sign that Australia intends to take a more proactive and public role in shaping the Southeast Asian regional order. With a focus on strengthening economic ties and boosting links between Australian and ASEAN-based businesses, Turnbull hopes the summit will build on the Australia-ASEAN strategic partnership inked by leaders in November 2014.
But the 2018 meeting needs to be preceded by a solid plan to lift our strategic ties with ASEAN and its member states. Australia must devote serious attention to Southeast Asia's strategic and political architecture in the forthcoming foreign and trade white paper. Keeping a new White House constructively engaged should also a top priority.
Before his visit to Laos, the Prime Minister said 'Australia's future prosperity and stability are best served when we engage actively in our region and shape its course'. This sense of initiative needs to be seized upon and turned into a coherent and ambitious program of engagement with ASEAN. This rhetoric is a marked change from the passive stance of the 2003 White Paper, in which the government pledged to simply 'seek opportunities for Australia to participate in the broader dynamic of regional cooperation in East Asia in whatever practical ways become available'.
The regional strategic environment has changed a great deal since 2003, and the imperative and demand for Australia to play a leading role is stronger than ever. One of the ways Australia could do this is by encouraging the ASEAN-led East Asia Summit to morph into a freer exchange between leaders. Views should be more liberally aired, instead of constricted by bureaucratese and tightly-scripted statements.
There is something to be said in favour of the consensus-driven 'ASEAN way'; as the Economist notes, ASEAN summits are the only game in Asia, and allow regional leaders rare trust-building opportunities. But it's not a great use of time to bring together the leaders of ASEAN states, along with the US, China, Japan, India, Russia, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, to read out prepared statements once a year. A dynamic, reformed and strategically engaged EAS needs to be front and centre of our ASEAN strategy, and is key to keeping the group relevant and able to deal with the region's challenges.
While bringing Southeast Asian leaders to Australia is a solid first step, the ASEAN-Australia summit probably won't take place for 18 months. Much is likely to change between now and early 2018. The Prime Minister needs to back up Australia's ambition by traveling to Southeast Asia more often, and not just for the mandatory multilateral summits.
Notably, no Australian prime minister since John Howard has paid a standalone visit to Vietnam, one of our largest trading partners and a critical strategic player in the South China Sea. Political instability notwithstanding, the same goes for Thailand, another major trading partner and key ASEAN player. John Howard went in 2003 to mark the conclusion of the Australia-Thailand FTA negotiations, but no PM has paid a separate bilateral visit since then.
In contrast, a steady stream of Southeast Asian leaders have visited Australia in the last five years, including those from Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore. We've rightly devoted significant leader-level attention to our relations with Indonesia, ties with Singapore are particularly strong, and the MH370 and MH17 disasters drew us closer to Malaysia. But Australia shouldn't forget about the importance of developing links with ASEAN across the board.
Not only must Australia pursue closer engagement, it needs to encourage the new US administration to remain closely engaged in Southeast Asia. Under President Obama and the pivot, the US has significantly stepped up its engagement, including through the US-ASEAN Sunnylands meeting held in February 2016 (an event largely ignored in Australia). It's uncertain whether this focus on Southeast Asia will be kept up under the next White House. The rebalance is certainly more likely to be sustained under a Clinton Administration, but a recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues there is confusion about its purpose and how it's being executed; not a good sign for such a high-profile policy initiative. Australia will need to play a significant role in convincing a new president to stay constructively engaged in regional institutions and in the neighbourhood more generally.
Australia has serious depth of expertise on Southeast Asian economic, strategic and political matters. We have the advantage (or predicament) of geographic proximity to boot. But the long-term benefits won't appear without effort. Australia needs to do more hard thinking about what we want the regional order to look like, how we're going to get there, and what Australia's place in it should be. The first step is to redouble our ties with ASEAN and Southeast Asia.
Patrick Ingle is the 2016 Thawley Scholar in International Security at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He is currently on leave from the Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Australian Government.
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