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The Growing Importance of the ASEAN–Australia Relationship

16 May 2016
By Margaret Goydych and Rhea Matthews
The 28th ASEAN-Australia Forum. Photo source: ASEAN (official website).
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Australia was the inaugural dialogue partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) when the then five member states met with Australian officials in Canberra in 1974. Since then ties have been deepened; however, more can be done to realise the full potential of this relationship.

With 10 member states and a combined population of over 620 million, ASEAN has come a long way since its inception. As some of Australia’s closest neighbours and with a history of strong economic interaction, it is important that the value of Australia’s relationship with ASEAN is properly recognised.

In this regard, the recent Australia–ASEAN Forum, held in Canberra on 22 April, is a step in the right direction. The event was attended by representatives from the ASEAN member states, Australian government officials and the ASEAN Secretariat. A range of topics was covered with particular focus on strengthening cooperation between ASEAN and Australia.

Forums such as this enable Australia to exert its influence in the region, deepen economic ties, pursue its values and address common security concerns. It is therefore important that these dialogues continue, to reinforce Australia’s relationship with the rising powers in Southeast Asia.

Economic relations

Australia needs to consider which countries have the most to offer it in economic terms. With the economic downturn affecting most of the Western world, the value of developing partnerships with the growing economies of Southeast Asia is crucial.

Given the region’s combined GDP of approximately US$2.5 trillion and the potential market of 620 million consumers that the ASEAN Community represents, our neighbours have much to offer us economically. In fact, the ASEAN Community is Australia’s second biggest trading partner with two-way trade amounting to over $100 billion annually since 2014. Hence, sustained investment in the economic relationship should be a high priority.

This was a key area of discussion at the Forum, with participants canvassing ways to deepen economic ties, for instance, through encouraging Australian businesses to engage with the region. Parallel to this was finding ways to urge investors in the region to place their capital in Australia.

The ASEAN–Australia–New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA) agreement is another important and often underappreciated aspect of the relationship. It has assisted in bolstering economic relations, particularly as it has made the transfer of Australian resources, agriculture and development assistance to ASEAN countries (on which their economies depend heavily) that much easier.

Security cooperation

While Australia–ASEAN relations tend to be focused on economic ties, developing other areas of the relationship should also be a priority. In terms of security, both ASEAN and Australia share common concerns, as well as the goal of maintaining a rules-based international order. At the Forum in April, both parties discussed their security priorities and ways in which they could collaborate to ensure the stability and prosperity of the region.

The South China Sea dispute, for example, is one of the most important international security issues today. This was a focal point at the Forum, where both sides placed emphasis on solving disputes peacefully in accordance with international law and through proper diplomatic channels. Participants also stressed the need to cooperate in the maritime domain to address their shared security concerns, particularly through the track 1.5 Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum.

Another area of Australia–ASEAN security collaboration is in addressing the common concern of human trafficking. ASEAN has now passed a Convention on Trafficking in Persons, which is complemented by the Australia–Asia Program to Combat Trafficking in Persons. At the Forum, Australia’s leadership in combating this problem was appreciated by ASEAN participants, especially Australia’s new International Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery launched in March this year.

Besides the Forum, ASEAN and Australia address their security concerns through other channels such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM-Plus). These mechanisms allow Australia to pursue its security interests in partnership with its neighbours and ensure peace in the region.

Regional aid

Australia has a vested interest in a “prosperous, peaceful and secure Southeast Asia.” Delivering aid to ASEAN countries is a valuable way of achieving this goal. By helping meet the development needs of ASEAN societies, Australia can contribute in building a more stable and prosperous region. This will have positive flow-on effects for its own security. However, regional aid cooperation is an often underestimated part of the Australia–ASEAN relationship.

In every dimension, this type of aid is more difficult than bilateral aid-giving. This is because there are a number of different state actors at play, each with its own priorities. Therefore, it is crucial to sustain effective channels of communication such as the Australia–ASEAN Forum to enable both sides to understand each other’s priorities.

The recent Forum covered issues including stopping human trafficking; promoting safe labour; and prosecuting criminals. Participants reiterated the Bali Declaration and recognised the need to increase cooperation among members to combat human trafficking.

The significance of Australia’s role

The role of Australia in relation to ASEAN is a significant one. It is notable that at last year’s ASEAN-Australia foreign ministers’ meeting, it was agreed that the Australia and ASEAN would host biennial Leaders’ Summits. This signifies the centrality of Australia’s position in ASEAN’s regional outlook. As more countries attempt to become a part of the Association, the fact that Australia remains the first choice of partner for ASEAN is no small achievement.

Platforms such as the Australia–ASEAN Forum provide a unique opportunity for Australia to have its say and communicate on issues where it would otherwise not have the chance. For instance, the ASEAN Regional Forum is the only meeting where Australia and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) are in the same room. Australia is therefore able to use the event to communicate with North Korea and emphasise its desire to maintain a rules-based international order. This occurred during the Forum in April, where ASEAN and Australia called on the DPRK to abide by UNSC resolutions and take steps to denuclearise.

By assisting ASEAN to realise its goals, Australia is well placed to achieve its own. It is high time we place greater value on the Australia–ASEAN relationship. As more states aspire to become involved with ASEAN, Australia should work hard not to lose its competitive position. By engaging at a deeper level with ASEAN, we can strengthen economic ties, ensure the security of our region, promote our values of a rules-based international order, and work together to ensure our mutual prosperity.

Margaret Goydych holds a Bachelor of International Relations from the Australian National University and is the current editor of Australian Outlook at the AIIA National Office. Rhea Matthews holds a Master of International Relations from the Australian National University and is currently an intern at the AIIA National Office. This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. It may be republished with attribution.