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International Relations

Australia right to huddle closer to Southeast Asia

With the US in retreat and China ascendant, chances grow for future ASEAN accession

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, left, and Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shake hands at a joint press conference in Sydney on March 16.   © AP

By the standards of global diplomacy, Australia's decision to host its first-ever summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last weekend is hardly epoch-making.

But in its modest way, it is a signal of how the great powers are changing the world -- and how smaller powers are responding to that change. Perturbed by the rise of China and uncertain over the U.S.'s commitment to Asia under President Donald Trump, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his guests in Sydney wanted to show that, as the leaders of smaller regional powers, they want to play a bigger role in defining their own future by deepening their strategic partnership.

For Australia the development is particularly striking, having long kept a political distance from its Asian neighbors, preferring to position itself among its historic allies in the U.S. and Britain. Australia and ASEAN have also been long divided on immigration, particularly with Indonesia, as well as human rights issues. Human rights organizations have openly warned the Australian leadership against warming up to autocratic Southeast Asian leaders. But now, as the summit heard, even future Australian membership of ASEAN is no longer out of the question.

To the surprise of many observers in Sydney, Indonesian President Joko Widodo went so far as proposing Australia's "full membership." Flattered by the invitation, Australia said it would "very seriously" consider the option.

In fact the idea of Australia membership has also been advocated by prominent figures at home such as former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Even though Australian membership is years away, if it ever materializes, Widodo's controversial suggestion reflects ongoing debates both over ASEAN's desires to increase its heft and Australia's need to reposition itself as a "Western" nation in the Asian century. At the very least, some form of associate membership might one day be on the cards for Canberra.

For now, both Australia and the ASEAN are fast realizing the necessity to step up to plate lest great power rivalry undermine decades-long prosperity and stability in the Asia-Pacific. Instead of waiting for the U.S. to get its house in order, or hoping against hope for a non-threatening rise of China, ASEAN and Australia are taking steps in a bid to be captains of their own strategic destiny.

At the end of the gathering, which saw the attendance of 10 heads of state and government, with the notable exception of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, both sides sent an unmistakable message of discontent vis-a-vis both superpowers. They underlined their commitment to build an inclusive post-American regional order, one that is not dominated by China.

In their joint "Sydney Declaration" statement, ASEAN and Australia "reaffirm[ed] our support to enhance trade and investment as well as resisting all forms of protectionism to improve regional development and prosperity."

This was a thinly-veiled rebuke of the Trump administration's "America First" brand of unilateral protectionism.

Both sides also reiterated "the importance of non-militarisation" and "exercise in self-restraint" in the South China Sea, while pushing for "full and effective implementation" of the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea "in its entirety" as well as "early conclusion of an effective" code of conduct in the area.

While stopping short of directly naming China, it was clear that both sides were expressing deepening concerns over Beijing's continued militarization of and reclamation across disputed land features in one of the world's most important waterways.

The deepening Australia-ASEAN partnership is driven by profound fears as well as unmistakable opportunism.

On one hand, there is a sense that they will have to hang together or risk being hung separately by the toxic combination of a resurgent China, an unreliable America, and a plethora of non-traditional security threats, ranging from climate change to terrorism.

This sentiment was highlighted in Turnbull's speech during the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual gathering of the world's leading defense officials and experts in Singapore.

"In this brave new world we cannot rely on great powers to safeguard our interests," he said. "We have to take responsibility for our own security and prosperity, while recognizing we are stronger when sharing the burden of collective leadership with trusted partners and friends."

Australia views ASEAN, composed of rapidly emerging nations including Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, as a crucial partner in preserving a rules-based regional order.

Geographical proximity also means that Australia, has a stake in ensuring transnational terrorism does not take root in neighboring Southeast Asia. This is precisely why Canberra was at the forefront of international efforts to aid the Philippines' liberation of Marawi from Islamic State-affiliated groups last year.

Drawing on the successful experience of liberation of Marawi, and longstanding cooperation with Indonesia and Malaysia, Australia and ASEAN signed the memorandum of understanding on countering international terrorism.

The aim is to expand and institutionalize exchange of expertise, equipment and intelligence in combating Islamic radicalism and extremism in Southeast Asia.

As for responding to China, Widodo even proposed coordinated patrols among Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea, underlining Indonesia's anxieties over China's expanding military footprint in the area. Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore have welcomed expanded maritime security cooperation with external powers largely in response to threats posed by Beijing.

But there are important caveats. First, there are serious worries about the ability of the ASEAN, in its current constitution, to be able to sufficiently resist and tame China's strategic assertiveness in East Asia. Members are divided over how hard to push back with Duterte -- significantly absent in Sydney -- seemingly ready to cede strategic influence to Beijing in return for economic support.

Also, the issues of immigration that have generated disputes between Australia and ASEAN countries are unlikely to fade away, as migration is increasing around the world, including the flow of refugees to countries such as Australia, which are less-than-welcoming in their approach. Australia's readiness to criticize the human rights records of other countries -- including ASEAN members such as Myanmar -- also rests uneasily with ASEAN'S practice of non-interference in the internal politics of other nations.

Yet, powerful economic forces are driving the booming Australia-ASEAN bilateral relationship. Australia's trade with ASEAN, amounting to almost $100 billion, eclipses that with both the U.S. and Japan. Two-way investment stood at around $225 billion in 2016, eclipsing that with China.

Southeast Asian receives as much as 12% of total Australian exports, while as many as 100,000 students from across ASEAN boost Australia's behemoth education industry.

Through the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP-11), the recently signed trade pact, Australia is bound to further deepen its economic engagement with Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Brunei, ASEAN members of the TPP-11. Indonesia and the Philippines have also expressed interest in joining the TPP-11, as the accord gathers support despite being abandoned by the Trump administration.

As the Australian leader declared on the first day of the summit, "We must face the world, not turn from it. Embrace free trade, not retreat from it." Though still in its infancy, this emerging coalition of mid-ranked powers could be crucial to the construction of a more inclusive, stable and multipolar regional order. In this context, Australia one day joining ASEAN would be perfectly feasible -- and desirable.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author; his latest book is "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" (Palgrave Macmillan).

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