Special ASEAN Roundtable on “ASEAN-Australia Relations for the Next 50 Years”

In this Special ASEAN Roundtable, panellists explored the depth and breadth of the ASEAN-Australia relationship over the last five decades, and discussed ways to enhance the partnership going forward, as well as contemporary issues and their implications on the region.

ASEAN Studies Centre Hybrid Seminar

Monday, 20 May 2024 – The ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, in partnership with the High Commission of Australia in Singapore, organised the Special ASEAN Roundtable on ASEAN-Australia Relations for the Next 50 Years. A high-level panel discussed findings from a newly published report titled “Comprehensive Strategic Partners: ASEAN and Australia After the First 50 Years”.

From left to right: Professor Nicholas Farrelly, Ms Sharon Seah, Mr Choi Shing Kwok, H.E. Allaster Cox, and Ms Karen Ong. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The panel comprised H.E. Allaster Cox, Australian High Commissioner to Singapore; Ms Karen Ong, Deputy Director-General of the ASEAN Directorate at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Professor Nicholas Farrelly, Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of Tasmania; and Ms Sharon Seah, Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Welcome Remarks

Mr Choi delivered the Welcome Remarks. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In his Welcome Remarks, Mr Choi Shing Kwok, Director and CEO of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute spoke of Australia as ASEAN’s first formal dialogue partner and one of the first Comprehensive Strategic Partners, and its pivotal role in ASEAN’s economic and social development. He highlighted Australia’s remarkable support for regional development cooperation; the Aus4ASEAN Futures Initiative (2022-2032) – a flagship programme under Australia’s Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with ASEAN that seeks to address regional challenges; as well as a range of new and expanded initiatives announced at the recent ASEAN-Australia Special Summit that aims to reinforce Australia’s commitment to the region. On the economic front, Mr Choi highlighted the launch of the document “Invested: Australia’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040” that identifies a practical roadmap for promoting deeper economic linkages to the region. On the security front, Mr Choi spoke of Australia’s role and influence as an important factor for peace and stability in the region, and the like-mindedness that ASEAN shares with Australia and their shared vision for an open, stable, and prosperous region in this challenging and volatile world. He highlighted that it is important for both sides to continue to work together towards our common security objectives.  

High-Level Panel Discussion

Professor Farrelly spoke of the significant progress in ASEAN-Australia relations. When relations began in 1974, Australia looked to Southeast Asia to promote economic prosperity and regional security. The close cooperation and partnership between the two parties today are rooted in the principles of constructive dialogue and the co-design of programmes with ASEAN member states (AMS). Despite fluctuations in the ASEAN-Australia relationship, it is evident that the growing interactions has fostered greater confidence between both parties. Looking ahead, Professor Farrelly deemed the establishment of a dedicated ASEAN-Australia Centre, a recommendation in the policy report that was adopted by the ASEAN Leaders, as an important milestone to bring together various stakeholders and highlighted the importance of this type of cooperation for the next generation.

Noting the unprecedented long period of peace over the last 75 years, Ms Seah highlighted that the peace dividends may be ending with the growing geopolitical challenges in the region and beyond. Regarding Australia’s regional role, Ms Seah noted Australia’s long-standing commitment to stability, evidenced by its engagement in ensuring the smooth political transition of post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia and post-independence Timor-Leste. These experiences stand Australia in good stead to assist ASEAN in future regional crises. On regional perceptions of Australia, Ms Seah referenced The State of Southeast Asia 2024 Survey Report, sharing that the country was ranked seventh out of 11 dialogue partners in terms of their strategic relevance to ASEAN, with variations in ranking among different AMS. Additionally, she noted Australia’s consistent soft power dividends, ranked among the top three places to study and fifth to travel.

To enhance its relevance in the region, Ms Seah identified Australia’s role as a commodities producer as a potential area where it can add value, particularly to the region’s critical minerals downstream operations and to promote better environmental standards. While recognising Australia’s active participation in security initiatives such as the QUAD and AUKUS, Ms Seah noted that the country’s economic and environmental strengths could be leveraged to further its security role in the region.

H.E. Allaster Cox reiterated Professor Farrelly’s observation about the broadening of the ASEAN-Australia relationship over the past five decades. He recalled the ASEAN-Australia Economic Cooperation Programme in the mid-1980s, which was a large aid programme focused on economic policy and advisory. This marked the start of Australia’s economic relationship with ASEAN, whose economy today is at least two times larger than Australia’s. Although the economy remains a key pillar of the ASEAN-Australia relationship, its focus has evolved from development cooperation to promoting investment and deepening business and people-to-people links. Cooperation has also expanded to new sectors such as green economy, energy transition, critical minerals, and food security, amongst others. Beyond the economy, the political and strategic pillar of relations has also developed to include Australia’s participation in ASEAN-led mechanisms such as the ARF, EAS, ADMM-Plus, and its support of ASEAN Centrality in the Indo-Pacific. In terms of people-to-people connections, H.E. Cox regarded the establishment of the ASEAN-Australia Centre and other initiatives targeting ASEAN-Australia youth as ways to foster stronger and more vibrant cooperation.

Ms Karen Ong continued the discussion by underlining Australia’s importance to ASEAN, mainly due to their geographical proximity, shared history, and mutual strategic interests. She noted that Australia was ASEAN’s first dialogue partner and among the first to upgrade its relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). On the economic front, she highlighted the burgeoning two-way trade, currently worth about $170 billion. On reasons why ASEAN matters to Australia, Ms Ong emphasised that ASEAN is projected to be the fourth largest economy in the world by 2030, with a majority of the populace under 35 – indicating a young and vibrant workforce, and a large consumer base. She added that six AMS are ranked amongst Australia’s top 15 trading partners, outlining that a stable, prosperous, and inclusive ASEAN will undoubtedly benefit Australia’s growth, and thus, encouraged participation in ASEAN-led mechanisms.

In the next phase of relations, the ASEAN-Australia CSP and strategies such as the Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040 will stimulate greater economic engagement between the two parties, with priority cooperation in digital and green economies, including in artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, digital trade, as well as clean and sustainable energy solutions.

During the Q&A session, panellists assessed the role of middle powers in maintaining regional stability amidst heightened great power competition, ways to strengthen people-to-people connections, regional perceptions towards Australia including factors contributing to its declining influence, and cooperation in emerging areas such as clean energy.

113 participants attended the hybrid Special ASEAN Roundtable.

(Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)