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AUKUS raises questions about Australia as an 'Asian' nation

Canberra's narrative about regional role leaves ASEAN members wary

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, poses with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Rome on Oct. 30.   © Pool via REUTERS

BANGKOK -- Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne's whirlwind four-country Southeast Asian tour earlier this month seemed a little odd, both in timing and destinations.

Payne visited ASEAN members Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison having already met online with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations 10 days earlier during the first ASEAN-Australia summit. Furthermore, a series of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings kicked off the same week before Payne ended her tour.

In a statement on Nov. 5 before departing Australia, Payne said her objective was to "advance our relationships with key partners, including to strengthen our shared work to promote the region's economic and health recovery from COVID-19."

But the countries she visited left no doubt that her real mission was to calm diplomatic waters after ASEAN members expressed dismay with AUKUS -- the landmark defense pact suddenly announced in September between Australia and its two powerful allies, the U.K. and U.S.

Under the trilateral agreement, Australia will consider hosting U.S. bombers on its territory, gain access to advanced missiles and, most importantly, receive nuclear propulsion technology to power a new fleet of submarines.

Indonesia and Malaysia are concerned about the submarine deal, which is clearly designed to address security challenges posed by China, saying it could fuel a regional arms race and heighten strategic tensions. Vietnam, which is on the front line of territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea, has yet to take a clear position on AUKUS to avoid provoking Beijing. Cambodia, which took over the chairmanship of ASEAN in late October, will host key ASEAN meetings and summits next year.

Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, left, meets with Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Bogor, Indonesia on Nov. 10.   © Indonesian Presidential Palace via Reuters

Last year, both Australia and China separately asked ASEAN to upgrade bilateral relationships with the bloc from "dialogue partner" status to "comprehensive strategic partnership." The ASEAN summit in October approved the proposals.

China plans to hold a special summit with ASEAN later this month chaired by President Xi Jinping, during which Beijing is certain to criticize AUKUS. Hence, before the China-ASEAN summit, Australia held talks with key ASEAN members to reassure the bloc that its plan for nuclear-powered submarines will not harm the group's strategic interests.

Australia is particularly concerned about how neighboring Indonesia -- a leading ASEAN member -- will respond to Beijing's criticism of AUKUS.

During the ASEAN-Australian summit in October, Morrison told ASEAN leaders that AUKUS would "add to our network of partnerships that support regional stability and security." But Indonesian President Joko Widodo "repeatedly and forcefully" raised concerns about AUKUS, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Jakarta's bitter reaction to AUKUS seems driven partly by its resentment over Australia's failure to provide substantial information about the pact during a high-level Sept. 9 meeting in Jakarta. Payne and Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton met with Indonesian counterparts Retno LP Marsudi and Prabowo Subianto, but only revealed that Canberra would soon make a security-related announcement, according to the Jakarta Post newspaper. AUKUS was unveiled six days later.

Morrison had planned to visit Jakarta in late September on his way home from a U.N. General Assembly meeting and talks with other leaders of the Quad, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the U.S., Japan, India and Australia. But the prime minister had to cancel his visit after Widodo opted to instead tour provinces outside the capital -- an obvious snub to Australia.

"Just as ASEAN was in the process of considering Canberra's request for an upgrade of its dialogue status to a comprehensive strategic partner later this year, the country gave the bloc a big slap in the face," said Kavi Chongkittavorn, senior fellow at Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Security and International Studies. "No ASEAN member expected its oldest dialogue partner to behave in such a disrespectful manner."

"Jakarta's quick and rough reaction was understandable. So was that of Malaysia. Other members were disappointed but did not show it," Chongkittavorn said.

Not all ASEAN members are unhappy about AUKUS, however, with Singapore and the Philippines supporting the pact. But Australia's failure to lay the diplomatic groundwork to win the bloc's backing ruffled feathers in the region.

The implications of AUKUS go far beyond Australia's relationship with ASEAN and raise fundamental questions about Canberra's role in Asia.

Australia's historical attitude toward Asia started with wariness and hostility. The Australian Gold Rush that began in 1851 quickly attracted more than 500,000 people, mostly immigrants from Britain and other Western countries but also a significant number of Chinese.

The arrival of the Chinese raised fears among white Australians that their country could eventually be overrun by huge numbers of Asians -- people with completely different racial and cultural backgrounds.

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard once referred to his country as the "deputy sheriff" of the U.S. in the region.   © Reuters

Australia became a nation on January 1, 1901 when the British Parliament allowed the six Australian colonies to collectively govern themselves as the Commonwealth of Australia. The fledgling country soon after adopted its "White Australia policy," effectively halting all non-European immigration into the country and contributing to the growth of a racially insulated white society. The policy was a response to white Australian's anxiety about a wave of Asian immigrants.

Australia was forced to change this discriminatory policy after Britain joined the European Community in 1973. Canberra officially scrapped it after recognizing the need to expand trade ties with Asia, a growing market for Australian minerals and farm products. In 1972, Australia established formal diplomatic relations with China and became an ASEAN "dialogue partner" in 1979.

As Australia changed its view about Asia from menace to key economic partner, the country took steps to broaden involvement in the region, including advocating for the establishment of APEC in 1989 and joining the ASEAN Regional Forum from its foundation in 1994.

Australia has also signed free trade agreements with Singapore, Thailand, ASEAN, China, Indonesia and others. It is also a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership free trade agreement among Asia-Pacific nations.

But there has always been a perception gap between Australia and the rest of Asia concerning their relationship.

John Howard, former Prime Minister of Australia, characterized Australia as the "deputy sheriff" of the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region, causing a stir in many Asian nations. Commenting on President Widodo's snub of Morrison, the Jakarta Post called the Australian prime minister the "second U.S. deputy sheriff after Howard."

Despite knowing ASEAN cannot stop China's naval expansion on its own, most members of the bloc were disappointed by AUKUS, which forced them to recognize that Australia turns to the U.S. and Britain -- not Asia -- for its security, said Tsutomu Kikuchi, professor in international politics at Japan's Aoyama Gakuin University.

Australia's policy toward Asia is undergoing significant change. The country's relationship with China, the largest market for Australian exports, has deteriorated to its worst in decades, while Beijing's aggressive military buildup is posing a security threat. This has made it imperative for Australia to beef up relations with India and ASEAN.

The idea of Australia seeking to join ASEAN has even been touted. The ASEAN Charter -- a binding agreement among the 10 ASEAN member states on basic rules concerning the bloc -- stipulates a new ASEAN member shall be located "in the recognized geographical region of Southeast Asia."

East Timor applied to join the bloc in 2011. Australia, located close to East Timor, seems to fulfill this membership requirement.

If Australia really wants to become an ASEAN member, it will have to do more to be recognized as a fully "Asian nation." But the AUKUS deal seems to indicate that Australia has prioritized a different international goal, that of being the first non-nuclear country to possess nuclear submarines.

In order to regain the trust of its Asian partners, Australia needs to solidify its identity as an Asian nation through actual policies and deeds.

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