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To ASEAN or Not to ASEAN - That is the Regional Question

Image credit: ASEAN (Facebook: Creative Commons)

The special ASEAN summit held in Sydney in March this year reflects the Australian priority on deepening engagements within Southeast Asia. The event has prompted debate on Australia's role in ASEAN, and its conduct within the region.

Discussion over Australia potentially joining ASEAN as a member is not certainly new. It has, however, become more substantive as a result of Indonesian President Joko Widodo's comments suggesting that such a move would be a "good idea". Although there is a lack of clarity about whether the statement was genuine or a polite gesture, Widodo is an influential spokesperson in ASEAN given he is the leader for the member with the most populous country. If the offer is a serious one, consensus is still required amongst the 10 members before an offer of membership is extended to Australia. There are still significant obstacles that could prevent such an occurrence, with some members concerned about Australia's strong relationship with America and objections to Australia's failure to embrace its Asian identity.

ASEAN membership offers a number of benefits to Australia. Primarily, the opportunity to engage more closely with neighbours who are emerging as influential regional and global powers. The opportunity to host this summit was in part driven by the desire to increase cooperation within the region, whilst also illustrating Australia's capacity as a leader and an important ally to ASEAN members.

Australia has expended significant resources into developing ties with many of its South East regional neighbours, signing a strategic partnership with Vietnam and pursuing stronger security cooperative arrangements with Singapore. These are clear signals from the government that there has been a shift in how Australia perceives its role in the region, including a strong emphasis on bilateral relations and support of ASEAN in the DFAT Foreign Policy White Paper.

It is also worth noting that there is significant benefits to Australia hosting the summit as it continues to seek engagements to boost political, economic and security links within the region. The ASEAN bloc combined are Australia's third largest trading partner, with the potential for substantive growth over the coming decades. As such, it is of critical importance that Australia continues to build on these relationships to continue fostering trade links, and asserting its leadership and economic capabilities in the region.

The summit also provides the opportunity for Australia to reassert the importance of a rules-based order in the region. Such a system is beneficial to Australia as China continues to rise, and counteracts movements by the Chinese to “erode the will” of ASEAN countries on certain issues and commitment to the bloc. China has been increasingly criticised for acquiring support from ASEAN members including Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines through strategic investment.

To date, Australia has been opposed to joining ASEAN as it would potentially compromise the ability to speak critically over human rights offences committed by members. It would also require that Australia surrender part of its independence by enabling ASEAN to speak on its behalf. These concerns are unique to a nation who needs to present a strong, assertive leadership style in the Southeast Asian region, but also to develop strong ties with its North American and European allies.

Active bilateral engagement with members, and the opening of new platforms and forums for discussions will be key in developing Australia's status beyond 'dialogue partner' to ASEAN. This will help secure the outcomes that it is seeking to achieve in its regional engagements without becoming a member and potentially causing more harm than good for Australia’s global reputation and independence.

Kate Jennings is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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