Seminar on “Australia and Southeast Asia: ASEAN vs. Minilateralism?”

In this hybrid seminar, Prof Nick Bisley examined Australia’s approach to Southeast Asia and the tensions that exist between its traditional multilateralism and more recent embrace of competitive minilateralism.


22 February 2023, Thursday ­– In a hybrid seminar held at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Professor Nick Bisley discussed Australia’s approach to Southeast Asia as well as the tensions between Canberra’s traditional approach of multilateralism and its more recent embrace of competitive minilateral mechanisms such as AUKUS and the Quad. Professor Bisley is the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University, Australia.

Prof Nick Bisley (right) with moderator Ms Hoang Thi Ha. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Professor Bisley began by outlining the gap between the “rhetoric and reality” in Australia’s foreign policy towards Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is an important and critical region for Australia, and this is evinced by Canberra’s long track record of engagement with the region. For instance, Australia was an early and strong supporter of Indonesia’s independence and was the second country to recognize Singapore as an independent sovereign state. Australia also became ASEAN’s first Dialogue Partner in 1974, and its relationship with the grouping has grown ever since—including entering into the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand free trade agreement (FTA) in 2010, appointing a resident ambassador to ASEAN in 2013, and establishing a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with ASEAN in 2021. Australia has also been an active participant in various ASEAN-related fora.

Professor Bisley stated that Australia’s focus on the region and ASEAN has however “waxed and waned” over the years, and Canberra has sometimes been caught in a tension between strengthening its bilateral relationships with individual Southeast Asian countries and its relationship with ASEAN as a whole. Moreover, Australia’s economic relations with the region remain relatively weak, with Australian outbound investment in New Zealand being greater than the sum of its investment in the ten ASEAN member states—a situation that is unlikely to change in the near future. Professor Bisley described Australia’s interactions with ASEAN as generally “superficial”, characterized by “light” and “low-cost” engagements that “do not really move the dial”. 

Professor Bisley explained that Australia’s recent enthusiasm for minilateral initiatives, including AUKUS and the Quad, reflects the reality that Canberra does not have confidence in the ASEAN-led regional security architecture. For Australia, the “smaller” minilateral arrangements represent an opportunity to pursue “more effective” and “more hard-nosed” security cooperation. The turn to minilateralism does not mean that Australia has abandoned its multilateralist instincts as a middle power. Multilateralism still offers Australia access to institutions that can help to shape and maintain a rules-based order and the broader security architecture, and Canberra remains an active participant in “inclusive and cooperative security” mechanisms such as the ADMM-Plus, the East Asia Summit, and the ASEAN Regional Forum. In sum, Australia can be described as pursuing a “dual track” foreign policy, where it is still an enthusiastic multilateralist but also “hedges its bets” by tightening its bilateral security relationships with Western partners such as the United States.

According to Professor Bisley, the minilateral turn came about around 2017, when Australia started adopting a more “pessimistic tone towards the region” and was more pronounced in its disquiet about China. That year, both Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop and prime minister Scott Morrison delivered keynote speeches in Singapore highlighting Australia’s concerns about China. Australia also adopted measures to protect itself against what it saw as Chinese encroachment, including blocking Huawei from participating in the country’s 5G development and passing an anti-foreign interference law. Canberra also issued a Defence Strategic Update in 2020, which featured a “bleak view of the region” and articulated a “sharper sense of risk” regarding Australia’s strategic environment. Professor Bisley observed that the Strategic Update was more focussed on “military security” and “hard power” components, in contrast to Australia’s previous emphasis on multilateralism and cooperation.   

In discussing the Quad, Professor Bisley recounted how it began life as “a security-oriented grouping” whose aperture has gradually widened. In the space of five to six years, the Quad has announced its ambitions to pursue programmes related to climate, public health, public health, humanitarian and disaster relief, space and vaccines. (Yet, as Professor Bisley noted, the Quad still lacks a geo-economic plan, save for a limited one pertaining to infrastructure development that remains pale in comparison to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.) The Quad’s temptation to “broaden but not deepen the agenda” (partly attributable to the less-than-robust alignment of interests between the four members) has led to weakening confidence in the mechanism, with some characterizing it as “geopolitical virtue-signalling” and “strategic policy as press release”. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of the Quad members has been generally cautious of and sensitive to ASEAN’s sensibilities, though Professor Bisley described it as “window dressing” since the Quad has no serious intention about strengthening ASEAN centrality. Furthermore, the Quad remains a “competitive and exclusive grouping” which remains at some odds to ASEAN’s “inclusive and cooperative” approach.

Professor Bisley said that AUKUS represents the “hard-edged focus” of Australia’s foreign policy. The grouping describes itself as a “capacity enhancement exercise”, which consists of two pillars: securing Australia’s access to at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, and fortifying the three countries’ military and technological capabilities, including in hypersonic and artificial intelligence. Notably, to AUKUS, ASEAN is relatively invisible. Since AUKUS is “highly exclusive” and “pointedly about military security”, Australia’s participation starkly encapsulates the tension between Canberra’s multilateral and minilateral approaches—especially since it shows a disregard for what its neighbours think about Australian security policy, particularly towards China.

Professor Bisley also shared how Australian foreign policy has slightly shifted under new prime minister Anthony Albanese. While the Morrison administration advanced more hawkish foreign policy sentiments, the Albanese government has tried to reconcile these tendencies with the “liberal internationalist, multilateral cooperative” approach that Australia has traditionally adopted. This includes trying to deepen Canberra’s policy and economic engagement with Southeast Asia. Foreign minister Penny Wong has toured the region, while a special envoy to Southeast Asia has been appointed. Plans to disburse a new set of scholarships for ASEAN students, upgrade the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand FTA, and increase the official development assistance to the region are also in the pipeline. Canberra also expects to hold a special summit with ASEAN to mark the 50th anniversary of dialogue relations in 2024.

Professor Bisley, however, recognized that Australia may face bandwidth and resource constraints in reconciling its multilateral and hawkish approaches. A growing post-pandemic debt burden and the costly procurement of nuclear submarines will only reduce the financing available to support diplomatic initiatives. Australia also tends to adopt an “utilitarian approach” to foreign policy, seeking to pursue actionable options with concrete results, which runs counter to ASEAN’s preferred mode of “talking and gathering”. He further noted the domestic currents that contribute to the “securitization” of Australian foreign policy—a trend entrenched by the previous Liberal-National Coalition governments. This is likely to continue with the worsening of geopolitical contestations. This is also not helped by Australia’s “short” electoral cycles and a system which makes it difficult to muster a strong majority in the lower house—thus resulting in a lot of political “churn” and “swings” that inevitably affects the country’s foreign policy conduct.

The talk was attended by a physical and online audience of around 70 people. Participants engaged Professor Bisley in a Q&A session, discussing the trajectory of the Quad and ASEAN-Australia relations (including how the Quad can gain traction in Southeast Asia), the impending accession of Timor-Leste to ASEAN, Australia’s plans to secure the nuclear-powered submarines, and the West’s potential reaction to China’s recently-unveiled Global Security Initiative Concept Paper.