‘Strengthening Australia-ASEAN engagement’
- The Kuala Lumpur meetings
11-15 April 2011
An introduction to the Asialink Commissions
The Asialink Commissions were conceived by Professor Tony Milner, Asialink’s International Director, as a means of closely examining the most important regional issues of the day together with Asian specialists.
‘The purpose of the Commissions', Professor Milner explains ‘is to strengthen Australia-Asia mutual understanding through a frank exchange of views. We need to know what the region is thinking as we negotiate an era of significant economic and strategic transition.’
||Asialink has built a wide network of dialogue partners in Southeast Asia through eight years of Asialink Conversations and the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Dialogues.
Dr Sally Percival Wood (left) worked with Professor Milner in developing the Commissions – and she introduces this new platform in the video opposite.
Professor Milner secured the strong support of ISIS Malaysia and an impressive group of regional specialists to participate in the first Asialink Commission – ‘Strengthening Australia-ASEAN Engagement’.
Preliminary ReportThe Asialink Commission on ‘Strengthening Australia-ASEAN engagement’ has been initiated at a time of unpredictability and transition in the Asia region. Questions providing a context to the Commission include: How will China use its growing power? How will the United States and other major powers respond to that power? And which of the many existing regional institutions are likely to be the most influential and decisive?
The Commission is investigating what role Australia might play in relations between a rising Asia and the West. In particular, we are asking whether stronger Australia-ASEAN collaboration might help secure the region’s core interests: stability, peace and prosperity.
In the week 11-15 April 2011, Asialink – in close cooperation with Malaysia’s leading Track II institution, ISIS Malaysia – held a series of meetings in Kuala Lumpur to support the work of the Commission.
The meetings focused on three topics: economic issues, relations with the major powers, and cooperation within regional institutions. The Australian High Commissioner to Malaysia, H.E. Miles Kupa, hosted one meeting; another took the form of an audience with His Royal Highness, Raja Nazrin Shah, the Crown Prince of the Malaysian state of Perak. Dato’ Dr Mahani Zainal Abidin, Chief Executive of ISIS Malaysia, hosted a third meeting.
Participants in the Kuala Lumpur meetings included leading specialists from a range of ASEAN countries and Australia.
Australia has a long track record in ASEAN
We have been an ASEAN dialogue partner for almost 40 years. Regional dynamics have transformed radically over that time, but Australia is viewed as a steady partner. In fact, the degree of shared Australia-ASEAN familiarity is seen by some Southeast Asians as a ‘long, dependable marriage’ – we can take each other for granted or simply fail to recognise subtle changes due to our proximity. In the post-Asian Financial Crisis era, however, stronger synergies have evolved. Southeast Asia is democratising, its economies are flourishing (although there is uneven development across ASEAN), and Australia-ASEAN security interests increasingly converge. Both in Australia and ASEAN there is particular concern about the implications of major shifts in the dynamic relations between the region’s powers – China, Japan, India, the United States.
Australian and Southeast Asian interests are more closely aligned than they have ever been. But how effectively do we work together to secure those interests?
The East Asia Summit (EAS) represents one new opportunity for broad regional cooperation. There is optimism in Australia that the EAS will provide the mechanism to balance power relations and manage Asia’s era of transition. The Asialink Commission tested this proposition by navigating the layers of complexity that potentially inhibit – or might enhance – the prospects of this regional forum. The EAS has no formal structural framework to operationalise decisions and ASEAN leaders have no clear vision of how it will function with new members the United States and Russia. This is a sobering observation, but may also present a window of opportunity for Australian-ASEAN relations, particularly during Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship.
For instance, it may be possible for ASEAN and Australia to work together to:
- identify a set of shared objectives for the EAS (taking into account the existing programs of the ASEAN+3 process, which does not include Australia or the United States)
- formulate the sort of modest institutional structure in the EAS that would best secure the region’s interests
- identify ways to facilitate the role of the United States and Russia in the EAS, such as interpreting and negotiating the ASEAN culture, norms and processes
Working together with ASEAN to supplement the EAS process, however, might be even more critical for Australia.
The Kuala Lumpur meetings suggested that both Track I and Track II meetings between ASEAN and Australia (e.g. the Track I ASEAN-Australia Forum meets every 18 months to two years, and the annual Track II ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Dialogue) need to be strengthened – and the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand-Free Trade Agreement (AANZFTA) also could be better publicized. Effective collaboration often takes place on a bilateral basis – especially given the differences in interests and capacities between ASEAN countries – and we should also continue to identify projects for coalitions of the like-minded. Two examples of such projects are the Trans Pacific Partnership – including Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, Peru, the United States, Vietnam and most recently Malaysia – a free trade agreement that has been under negotiation since March 2010; and the multilateral Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime (the Bali Process), in which Australia is joined by Indonesia, Thailand and New Zealand on the steering committee.
Putting ASEAN first
One point made strongly at the Kuala Lumpur meetings was that Australia’s approach to Asia – Australia’s ‘Asia strategy’ – should focus on ASEAN. To be seen to strengthen relations with ASEAN does not antagonize China but it can also be a way of strengthening Australian engagement and influence in the wider Asia region. A closer ASEAN collaboration also has the potential to enhance Australian influence with both the United States and China.
What Australia can do now:
- Refine our regional narrative – send clear messages of commitment to ASEAN as a primary ally and a trusted neighbour that can depend on Australian support; work to support ASEAN in the ‘driver’s seat’ of Asian regionalism; follow China’s example of backing ASEAN initiatives, and only then seeking ASEAN support for an Australian initiative
- Locate Australia’s Ambassador to ASEAN in Jakarta – the United States and Japan have done so
- Strengthen Track II engagement – ASEAN highly values opportunities to meet regularly to dialogue in a risk averse setting on a broad range of matters
- Formalise ASEAN+1 engagement – establish a bi-annual leaders’ meeting within a formal ASEAN+1 framework. This would distinguish ASEAN-Australia engagement from ASEAN’s nine Dialogue Partnerships – which operate at senior official level – and provide a mechanism through which ongoing consultations on a broad range of issues could maintain and reinforce mutual understanding and strategic dialogue.
Professor Tony Milner
Dr Sally Percival Wood