“Australia in ASEAN: Vision or Fantasy?” by Hoang Thi Ha

2018/31, 19 March 2018

When Indonesian President Joko Widodo expressed his support for Australia to join ASEAN in his interview with Fairfax Media on 15 March, he was thinking way outside of the box, and literally outside the scope of the ASEAN Charter which reserves membership only for those states located in “the recognised geographical region of Southeast Asia.”

Although Southeast Asia is essentially an artificial construct which took shape only in recent history, the recognition of Southeast Asia as what it is today has taken root in Southeast Asians’ imagination and in inter-state relations among Southeast Asian governments, and between them and the world. If Australia is brought into the group, we must fundamentally re-define where Southeast Asia is, what geographical realms it encompasses. And while ASEAN actively embraces open regionalism, at its core remain the ten Southeast Asian countries, probably plus Timor-Leste in the future.

Geography aside, another fundamental question is whether Australia is ready, maybe not now but by 2024 as proposed by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) or even further into the future. In fact in earlier years, various former Prime Ministers including Paul Keating had argued for full Australian membership in ASEAN. However, they did not represent the mainstream Australian thinking.

To be an ASEAN member, one must agree to respect and abide by the ASEAN Charter, including the non-interference principle and decision-making by consensus. As a champion for liberal and democratic values, will Australia refrain from expressing its views on domestic politics of other ASEAN member states as it is doing today? Will Australia be comfortable with the ASEAN Way which Canberra and many Australian commentators have often lamented as “slow and ineffective”?
Australia had engaged Southeast Asia as early as the 1950s, became ASEAN’s first Dialogue Partner in 1974, and is currently an important trading and investment partner and aid provider for many ASEAN member states. Its links with the region are broad and deep, and its strategic partnership with ASEAN comprehensive. But as seen from Canberra’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, a big part of Australia’s approach to the region is from bilateral lens. Although Australia has attached greater importance to engagement with ASEAN over the past decade, its ambivalence towards ASEAN regionalism, as demonstrated in Australia’s proposal of the Asia-Pacific Community in 2008, remains.

Former ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino, when asked by ASPI in 2015 about the case of Australia’s membership, responded that “You are not Southeast Asian.” By that, he probably meant not only in terms of geography but also Australia’s regional identity. In its current strategic outlook, Australia postures itself as part of the Indo-Pacific, not Asia per se. How can a country that has not come to terms with its “Asian identity” carry the Southeast Asian identity?

And last but not least, President Jokowi might mean well, but other ASEAN member states would be more cautious. Having Australia in the group would add strategic complexities and institutional complications to ASEAN regionalism in ways that we can only vaguely fathom now. Australia is not ready yet to alter its self to be ASEAN-fit, and ASEAN will not change its genes to bring Canberra into its fold, at least in the foreseeable future. The decision to admit new members into ASEAN requires agreement of all ten member states and the fact that this matter has not surfaced in ASEAN’s discussion is telling.

Ms Hoang Thi Ha is Lead Researcher II (Political and Security Affairs) at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

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.