Australia’s engagement with Southeast Asia has recently been put under the spotlight. How can Australia square its commitments to the major powers with its engagement with Southeast Asian states?
During September and October, a confluence of three events put Australia’s engagement with Southeast Asia under the spotlight. The first event was the unexpected announcement by President Joe Biden on 15 September of an enhanced trilateral security partnership involving Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The first AUKUS initiative was to assist Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarine technology.
The next event was the second summit meeting of the Quad in Washington on 24 September held by leaders from Australia, India, Japan, and the US. A joint statement issued by the Quad noted that Australia would take the lead in coordinating the Quad’s last-mile vaccine delivery efforts in Southeast Asia.
The third event was the convening of the first ASEAN-Australia Summit on 27 October. The summit decided to raise ASEAN’s relations with Australia to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The Chair’s Statement noted,
We discussed recent AUKUS announcement… including Australia’s decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, during which views were expressed on its implications for the region… welcomed Australia’s reaffirmation for ASEAN Centrality … commitment to … the TAC (Treaty of Amity and Cooperation) … [and] to meet all obligations as a non-nuclear weapons state under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Australia was the first country to be accorded this status, but the Chair’s Statement did not indicate what that entailed.
Southeast Asian Reactions to AUKUS
The establishment of AUKUS precipitated immediate expressions of concern by Indonesia and Malaysia that it would raise regional tensions, set off an arms race, undermine non-proliferation, and marginalise ASEAN. President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) received an intelligence brief about AUKUS just before its official announcement. The Jakarta Post reported that Jokowi was “upset by Morrison’s diplomatic snub, even close to a betrayal, because Australia kept mum about its security pact… until the very last minute.”
Indonesian Minister for Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi and Minister for Defence Prabowo Subianto were kept in the dark as well. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne contacted her Indonesian counterpart on 16 September immediately after AUKUS was announced. On the following day, Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a brief, five-point statement that said, inter alia, “1. Indonesia takes note cautiously of the Australian Government’s decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. 2. Indonesia is deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region.” The statement also stressed the importance of Australia meeting its obligations regarding nuclear non-proliferation and its commitments to the ASEAN TAC.
On 20 September, Scott Morrison spoke to Jokowi by phone while travelling to attend the Quad meeting. Morrison pledged that Australia would honour its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and that AUKUS would contribute to stability and a “strategic balance” in the region. Jokowi was not mollified. According to media reports, he “repeatedly and forcefully” raised concerns about Australia’s planned acquisition of nuclear submarines when he spoke to Morrison on 27 October during the ASEAN-Australia Virtual Summit.
Indonesian concerns were spelled out in greater detail on 28 September in an op-ed in The Jakarta Post written by Abdul Kadir Jailani, the Director General for Asian, Pacific and African Affairs within Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He wrote, “Such acquisition of nuclear submarines raises concerns that an arms race characterised by increasing power projection capabilities in the region may be imminent. This new strategic posture is clearly intended to bolster deterrence in contested areas in the Indo-Pacific.”
In Malaysia, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said on 18 September that AUKUS could “provoke other powers to take more aggressive action in this region, especially in the South China Sea” and be a “catalyst for a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific region.” Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, views were less critical. The Philippines supported AUKUS, while Singapore and Vietnam both took a neutral stance.
Foreign Minister Payne Visits Southeast Asia
On 5 November, it was announced that Foreign Minister Payne would visit Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia to enhance bilateral relations. Her agenda was largely shaped by the confluence of issues raised by the formation of AUKUS, the policy outcomes of the Quad second summit, and the elevation of Australia’s relations with ASEAN to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
Payne’s first stop was the Malaysia-Australia Annual Foreign Ministers’ Meeting with Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah. The agenda was wide-ranging and included equitable COVID-19 vaccine access and cooperation in post-COVID-19 economic recovery. The Joint Ministerial Statement touched on the sensitive issue of AUKUS: “Ministers noted the recent AUKUS announcements by the Leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom and the US. Both Ministers reiterated their commitment to preserve Southeast Asia as a region free from nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction… Minister Saifuddin welcomed Australia’s steadfast commitment to meet all its obligations as a non-nuclear weapons state under the NPT.”
Payne’s second stop was Cambodia on 7-8 November. Prior to her arrival, Prime Minister Hun Sen noted critically that Australia’s commitment to provide COVID-19 vaccines was long overdue, and “if there is uncertainty about getting it, then our next decision is to buy the Sinovac vaccines.”
Payne held discussions with her counterpart, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon, and met with Sen. Cambodia’s economic recovery from COVID-19 and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership featured prominently. Payne promised to support Cambodia as ASEAN Chair and addressed Sen’s concern by announcing that Australia would provide 3.5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to Cambodia, with 1.5 million to arrive by the year’s end.
Payne’s third stop was Vietnam on 9 November, preceded by a meeting between Morrison and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh on the sidelines of COP26. The two leaders agreed on a Joint Statement on Commitment to Practical Climate Action and a Joint Statement on Enhanced Economic Engagement Strategy.
On 9 November, Payne met with her counterpart, Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son, for the third Vietnam-Australia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. The ministers discussed recovery from COVID-19, sustainable development in Mekong Subregion, and climate change adaptation. Payne paid a courtesy call on Chinh and announced that Australia would share 5.2 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, bringing the total to 7.8 million. She also met with Minister of Public Security To Lam.
Payne’s final stop was Indonesia on 10 November. On the eve of Payne’s arrival in Jakarta, Australia released a Statement on Climate Action pledging $500 million to support Southeast Asian countries through better management of forests, land, and agriculture, of which $300 million was earmarked for Indonesia and Malaysia.
On 10 November, Morrison and Payne issued a Joint Media Release pledging Australia to provide 7.5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to Indonesia, bringing its total pledge up to 10 million. In addition, Australia pledged to provide $107 million for vaccine procurement through UNICEF that will result in the delivery of 20 million doses.
On the same day, Marsudi and Payne met to discuss how to follow up on the Morrison-Jokowi meeting in Rome, COVID-19 cooperation, post-pandemic economic recovery, green economy and energy transition, and Indonesia’s priorities as G20 president.
Foreign Minister Payne’s recent visit to Southeast Asia was aimed primarily at diffusing concerns about the possible destabilising impact of AUKUS on regional security. Her success in allaying regional concerns was greatly assisted by the Quad’s commitment to provide safe and free COVID-19 vaccines to the Indo-Pacific, with Australia taking the lead in facilitating delivery. Payne was able to focus her bilateral discussions on practical measures to develop the ASEAN-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor of Politics, School of Social Sciences and Humanities, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. He was educated at Brown, Yale and the Australian National University. He is a Southeast Asia regional specialist and is currently Director of Thayer Consultancy.
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