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Australia–ASEAN summit light on outcomes

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Laos' Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, Brunei's Prime Minister and Sultan Hassanal Bokliah, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Philippines' Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Peter Cayetano, Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak wave as they stand together during the Leaders Welcome and Family Photo at the one-off summit of 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Sydney, Australia, 17 March 2018 (Photo: Reuters/David Gray).

In Brief

The Australia–ASEAN summit in Sydney on 16–18 March 2018 was a rare opportunity for the government of Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to showcase its regional diplomatic credentials and to dominate media headlines on its own terms. The summit, convened with bipartisan Australian political support, brought ASEAN’s political leaders including Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi (on her first official visit to Australia) — but not Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte — together in Australia for the first time.


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The concrete results of the summit were rather sparse, confined to a ‘Sydney Declaration’ that was short on policy specifics and lacked political weight. Australian membership of ASEAN, raised hopefully by some observers, did not materialise, and announcements from the summit do not point to where worthwhile progress might have been achieved.

The facts about ASEAN as a grouping of bordering states with different political structures are well known. It owes its reputation to its success in pursuing outward-looking economic policies that connect it efficiently to international export supply chains, which has ultimately brought modern economic development and prosperity to member countries despite their social and political differences. Combined with its achievements in establishing harmonised technical standards across its members in trade (customs, quarantine and food safety), ASEAN’s consistent solidarity in defending international norms has enhanced its standing.

But the ASEAN characteristic most often remembered (almost always in unflattering terms) is ASEAN countries’ refusal to intervene in the internal affairs of other members. As a result, conventional commentary has long taken the view that ASEAN is politically, economically and strategically weak.

For example, ASEAN’s ‘Economic Community’ of 2015 has so far not had much impact on regional economic development. Instances where concerted ASEAN action made any difference to the hard political or strategic interests of the region are also hard to find. Accidents of geographical proximity, symbolic gestures and endless meetings shrouded in protocol and gaudy clothing are no substitute for real, collaborative effort.

Commentators from inside and outside the region in the lead up to the Sydney summit questioned ASEAN’s continued relevance. Australian scholar Malcolm Cook has pointed out that most ASEAN arrangements are not so much actions by the organisation as much as they are actions by the individual member countries.

Most effective international cooperation in Southeast Asia has happened outside the ASEAN organisation: the Shangri-La Dialogue on regional security is sponsored by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, many major regional policy efforts are spearheaded by the Asian Development Bank (with its impressive Research Institute located in Tokyo), scholarly endeavours are pushed by academic groups such as the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and the National University of Singapore, and even modest technical matters are dealt with by bodies like the Mekong River Commission.

But the organisation is not pointless: former Singapore permanent secretary of the Foreign Ministry Kishore Mahbubani is correct that ‘paradoxically, [ASEAN’s] weakness has been a source of strength’ for the organisation and the region — it provides a neutral geopolitical platform with which external powers can engage.

Ahead of the Australia–ASEAN summit, Australia’s Shadow Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs Senator Penny Wong notionally supported the idea of ASEAN ‘centrality’ — that is, the idea of ASEAN as the anchor and hub for broader Asian regional institutions and initiatives — in an address she gave in Singapore in January 2018. But Senator Wong’s real message was about the importance of international norms and rules in international trade and how ASEAN’s very presence in support of those rules and norms deters other countries from looking elsewhere. ASEAN’s success is that it achieves considerable cohesion in regional responses to trade challenges and other pressures despite the political and cultural differences among its members.

The experienced Australian journalist and writer Graham Dobell recently advocated that Australia join the grouping. But under the above conception of ASEAN centrality, what would Australia actually gain from becoming a member of ASEAN? The main issues that draw ASEAN’s collective focus today — including trade, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the Rohingya issue in Myanmar — are either already strong areas for Australia–ASEAN relations or do not directly involve Australia at all.

Australia’s rather light commitment of diplomatic resources to staffing ASEAN posts in the past reflects this. This approach has been essentially bipartisan, and it has allowed Australia to maintain its own leverage and freedom of manoeuvre vis-a-vis ASEAN.

The Sydney Declaration that came out of the summit reflected an Australian rather than an ASEAN agenda. Some issues raised, like counter-terrorism and cyber-security, are of greater focus for Australia than for ASEAN. The summit’s focus on the South China Sea did not really move this issue forward, and ASEAN has still not agreed upon a maritime ‘code of conduct’ for the territorial dispute (to which Australia is not a claimant).

The ASEAN–Australia summit may have been a marginal diplomatic achievement, but that does not imply likely benefits if Australia were to join ASEAN.

Trevor Wilson is a Visiting Fellow in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.

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