ASEAN-Australia Partnership Amid the Pandemic: Deepening Ties in Challenging Times

During the Covid-19 crisis, Australia has doubled down on its support for ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific. The ASEAN-Australia partnership has emerged stronger than ever.

2nd ASEAN-Australia Biennial Summit
In the 2nd ASEAN-Australia Biennial Summit, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (centre) and other ASEAN members’ Heads of State met via videoconference on 14 November 2020. (Photo: Australian Mission to ASEAN)
Will Nankervis

Will Nankervis

15 December 2020

When Australia became ASEAN’s first dialogue partner in 1974, the region looked dramatically different from the way it does today.

The Republic of Singapore had just opened its first national naval base. In Indonesia, President Suharto’s first five-year plan had come to an end. Malaysia had just established diplomatic ties with China. The Philippines and Thailand would follow suit the following year.

In Australia, the first credit card had become publicly available, road signs were being converted from miles to kilometres and our dollar was worth around 150 US cents – about double what it is today.

That year, the combined economies of ASEAN’s (then five) members accounted for less than two per cent of global GDP.

Contrast this with today. ASEAN’s combined GDP is the fifth largest in the world and developments in the region – expanding mega-cities, growing middle classes and increasingly interconnected supply chains – have been a key driver of global growth. ASEAN’s commitment to building stability and prosperity over consecutive decades has been crucial to the creation of an environment in which all countries have been able to thrive.

And Australia has been a strong partner for ASEAN over those decades, supporting the organisation’s priorities along the way.

This year – 2020 – has of course been unique. The once in a lifetime (we hope) pandemic and ongoing shifts in economic and strategic weight in the Indo-Pacific have strained and tested governments, organisations and relationships.

So, how has the relationship between ASEAN and Australia fared?

Happily, the ASEAN-Australia strategic partnership has emerged from this year even stronger and more robust. We have new streams of cooperation, new tools in the toolkit and new mechanisms for engagement to take the relationship to the next level.

Futures Intertwined

Australia’s future is tied to the future of Southeast Asia. We are, of course, neighbours. But we’re also connected by deep links between families, communities, educational institutions and businesses.

Covid-19 has underscored our importance to each other. Australia won’t be safe until Southeast Asia is safe. And while Australia’s economy is now officially out of recession, it won’t fully recover until the economies of ASEAN recover.

And Southeast Asia is – as the name of this new ISEAS blog rightly suggests – the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific, the region at the core of Australia’s foreign policy.

This year Australia doubled down on its support for ASEAN centrality within the Indo-Pacific. ASEAN and the architecture it leads should play a central role in the affairs of a region trying to plot its way out of the biggest global crisis we’ve seen in more than 70 years. The pandemic and ongoing pressure on the rules and norms that have underpinned regional security and stability have only reinforced Australia’s conviction about this. Covid-19 and an increasingly contested Indo-Pacific have made a strong, resilient ASEAN even more important.

Southeast Asia is – as the name of this new ISEAS blog rightly suggests – the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific, the region at the core of Australia’s foreign policy.

ASEAN Centrality: More Important Than Ever

A strong ASEAN benefits the region in a whole range of ways. I’ll mention just three.

First, ASEAN and its architecture are the primary rule and norm-setting bodies in the Indo-Pacific. This gives ASEAN great agency to shape the region.

Last year, ASEAN leaders demonstrated how this can work by adopting the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Laying out areas for cooperation and important principles – like openness, transparency, inclusivity, a rules-based framework and respect for international law – the Outlook provides a framework for engagement in the region.

Australia believes those principles should guide the post-pandemic regional order.

Second, ASEAN has unmatched convening power. Last month Vietnam, as ASEAN Chair, convened the pre-eminent regional forum for leader-led discussion of strategic issues – the East Asia Summit (EAS).

Despite this year’s virtual setting, the EAS provided the opportunity to discuss the region’s big-ticket issues – Covid-19, vaccine access, the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula, to name a few. Participants don’t always agree on all issues – but the EAS is a forum for ideas to be canvassed and perspectives heard. 

Third, ASEAN has cemented itself at the centre of the regional economic order through the signature of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

RCEP is a very big deal. It brings together countries accounting for approximately one-third of the world’s population and GDP. And, despite some claims to the contrary, RCEP has always been an ASEAN-centred and driven initiative.

ASEAN and Australia: Partners for Recovery

How has Australia worked with ASEAN in this challenging year?

When Prime Minister Morrison met with his ASEAN counterparts in November, he announced a new package of support for Southeast Asia, valued in the order of A$550 million. This package is concrete cooperation under the four key areas of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific – maritime, connectivity, the Sustainable Development Goals and economic development. It’s our investment in resilience, recovery and security in the region and it’s designed to give Southeast Asian countries options as they face the challenges of the times.

The package follows the Australian Government’s A$500 million commitment to support access to safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. It builds on a steady deepening of cooperation between Australia and ASEAN on Covid-19.

ASEAN leaders and the Prime Minister also agreed that from 2021, they will meet every year for annual ASEAN-Australia summits, opening a new chapter in the relationship. Annual summits will provide a mechanism at the highest level for deeper consultation, discussion and cooperation, and cement Australia’s position in the top tier of ASEAN’s partners.

Where to Next?

We can’t know what 2021 will bring. But we can safely assume that, like 2020, the Indo-Pacific will be shaped in many ways by the pandemic and ongoing strategic competition.

While it’s a difficult path ahead, we can be certain that Australia will continue to actively support ASEAN to play a central role in addressing the challenges facing the region. We’re better positioned to do so than ever before, with significant new programs and a new platform for leader-level engagement, coupled with our abiding, deep commitment to ASEAN and its architecture.

ASEAN can count on Australia’s partnership, now and into the future.

Will Nankervis is Australia’s Ambassador to ASEAN.  More recently, he was Assistant Secretary, Indo-Pacific Strategy and Regional Maritime Branch at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/210

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.