Australia must become part of ASEAN
Australia’s future lies in Asia — and its political survival rests on becoming part of the ASEAN community.
Although inconceivable to its majority Anglo population — the Asian Century will require a complete change of Australia’s foreign policy priorities.
The rise of China, ascent of states such as Indonesia, and the emerging Asian middle class evidence the dual challenge and opportunity of the region. South of the Indonesian archipelago, Australia will grapple with its proximity to this new engine of growth and strategic importance.
Australia currently accepts the tight cultural and logistical embrace of the United States. This has facilitated beneficial political, trade and defence-based co-operation. Historically, in exchange for receiving the US’ external protection, Australia has supported American initiatives abroad, including Iraq and Afghanistan. No doubt, by removing the perennial insecurities suffered by most states, the US security guarantee has allowed Australia to focus internally.
So far, this relationship has flourished under the superpower status of the United States. Australia has free-ridden off the benefits of regional stability in Asia, without having to thoroughly engage with, or see itself as a part of that community. Looming over the region, a US presence has frozen regional infighting, and stood behind Australia as its major ally. This has meant that Australia never derived its security from inside South East Asia. Instead, an ally with cultural and historical bonds alleviated the necessity of partaking in the cut and thrust of SEA politics.
For all its benefits — this arrangement has left Australia somewhat removed from SEA. Politicians do not conceive themselves as Asian statesman, or as part of a nation likely to become Asian itself. This conception of the national interest — and identity, is dangerously naïve. It places an over reliance on the United States in spite of changing times.
The US order is not yet in full retreat — but the center of international growth and influence is shifting North of the everyday Australian. Maybe not 10, or 20 years from now — but by around 2060, the US will be stretched to retain its unchallenged reach into Asia, as powers such as China and Indonesia contend for strategic space. Upholding its regional military presence may prove too costly, as China flexes its strategic muscle and responsibility — just as the US forced European powers out of 19th century South America.
Staunch defence of America’s Asian policy and presence will become increasingly costly to Australia. Why risk strangling domestic prosperity by participating in a military confrontation? Or rather — why blindly try to preserve a public good, which currently delivers diminishing marginal benefit to an Australia looking to live in the Asian Century. As put by Paul Keating, if China’s claim to regional influence is inevitable, clinging onto 20th century strategy will endanger our future role in the Asia-Pacific. With the relative decline of western influence, Australia must look within its region to find security — otherwise it will have held on to a weakened partner who over time, will have less of an interest in providing Australian security.
Thus by pursuing business as usual, Australia will be left diplomatically marooned. Culturally Western, demographically hamstrung, and without the ardent support of the US, Australia would be hard pressed to secure its regional interests.
Instead, Australia should look to find a place in the ASEAN community. This would occur over the long-term, as the cultural differences between the two are significant. However the definition of a special relationship, such as the ASEAN+2 (With New Zealand) would allow for sufficient cultural space as to abate domestic concerns. Starting with trade co-operation, and extending into strategic co-operation, Australia — an industrialised power — would be well positioned to provide specific expertise.
Joining the ASEAN bloc would multiply Australian involvement in regional politics. This would realise the goal of deriving Australia’s security from within Asia, now a true stakeholder that is no longer insulated from the costs of instability or poor regional policy. Binding with the other 10 members of the organisation also strengthens Australia’s balance against unwelcome Chinese policy. But it does so without risking future isolation. Accepting the reality of gradual US retrenchment — Australia must vault over cultural inhibition to establish what former head of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry Kishore Mahbubani described as a “geopolitical buffer” against East Asian expansionism.
Australia cannot cling to history to inform its future Asia policy. To do so would be political suicide and risks isolating Australia from its own region. Australian policy makers must trace the shifting authority from the Atlantic to East Asia so they can secure their nations influence.
Still partially frozen by US power, this new reality does not seem pressing to current elites who value the current arrangement. They understandably realise the cultural pain of integrating with a distinctly Asian bloc, with Australian’s finding comfort in their Western alliances.
But they must awake to Mahbubani’s reality that there are no “painless” options for Australia. So as long as cultural discomfort remains better than isolation and insecurity, they must work quickly to lay the ASEAN groundwork.
Because the thaw has already started.