New Directions in Australia’s Relations with Southeast Asia


Australia’s new Labor government has pledged to refocus attention on Southeast Asia, in response to what it sees as a negligence record under coalition government. While the first few weeks were dominated by the Pacific, China and the Quad, this week Foreign Minister Penny Wong is visiting Vietnam and Malaysia.

In a previous article for The interpreter, I argued that Australia’s challenge in Southeast Asia was one of ‘strategic divergence’, of diverging worldviews. This makes engagement – ​​especially on sensitive political issues – more difficult. Strengthening Australia’s relationship with this complex region will require short, medium and long term actions.

Short term: the next six months

Wong said Australia listen to the region. This, combined with extensive face-to-face Ministerial diplomacy, is the keystone to be put in place in 2022. Australia must make it clear that despite China’s challenges in the Pacific, Southeast Asia East will retain a prominent place in Australian foreign trade. Politics. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s commitment to attend the Indonesian G20 summit is good news. Supporting Thailand and Cambodia in their respective presidencies of APEC and ASEAN must also be a priority.

In this context, Australia will need to clarify the role of its special envoy for Southeast Asia, which has yet to be announced. Typically, Australia has appointed special envoys to muster support for a particular mission. For example, Kevin Rudd appointed former diplomat Richard Woolcott to engage countries in the region on his ill-fated proposal for an Asia-Pacific community. Australia’s multilateral candidacies, such as to the UN Security Council, have also been backed by special envoys, often in areas where Australia’s diplomatic presence is weak, such as Francophone Africa.

Ideally, a special envoy to Southeast Asia would be a member of the current government, who would have the power to convey messages from the region to decision makers in Canberra. The appointment of a former politician or civil servant could inadvertently suggest that Australian politicians want to delegate responsibility for this critical region.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese with new Foreign Secretary Penny Wong ahead of their first official overseas trip, to Tokyo for the Quad meeting (David Gray/Getty Images)

Medium term: the next three years

Labor has pledged $470 million in additional development assistance for Southeast Asia, including $200 million already committed to the climate infrastructure partnership with Indonesia. This is too little, both in relation to the region’s development needs and given the modest scale of many of Australia’s bilateral development assistance programmes.

Yet development aid is not the main prism through which Australia engages Southeast Asia. The new government is expected to seek to build on Australia’s existing strengths, including as a defense and security partner, and as a supporter of ASEAN institution-building and the ASEAN-centric regional architecture. . A strong leadership and funding mandate from relevant Australian agencies to prioritize South East Asia is an essential prerequisite if a South East Asia office within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade must have bite.

There is a risk that an ever-increasing focus on coordination between like-minded countries, including the Quad, South Korea and European partners, could distract from the core business of partnering with Southeast Asian countries.

In exploring new areas of cooperation, Australia should prioritize those where government action could play a catalytic role. Australia’s Partnerships for Infrastructure program, for example, aims to provide assistance to help Southeast Asian governments regulate, plan and acquire infrastructure (unlike the Pacific Infrastructure Facility which funds project development).

From this perspective, energy should be a key area for further cooperation between Australia and Southeast Asia, as it would help sustain the already growing interest of Australian businesses in the energy sector. energy in Southeast Asia. Bilateral political dialogues focused on energy security or a new ASEAN-Australia ministerial dialogue on the green energy transition would likely be welcomed by Southeast Asian countries.

Long term: a generational approach

Many of the most lamented aspects of Australia’s relationship with Southeast Asia, such as declining Asian language literacy and low Australian business interest in the region, have plagued successive Australian governments. . During Albanese’s recent visit to Indonesia, Australian experts’ comments on these aspects of the bilateral relationship were characterized by a sense of fatigue. Decades of stop-start efforts have yielded no results.

The Albanian government appears to recognize that gaps in Australian knowledge and presence threaten the long-term vitality of Australia’s engagement with its near region, particularly Indonesia. He announced new funding for an in-country study in Indonesia and prioritized corporate engagement during Albanese’s recent trip to Jakarta. It is not yet known whether Albanese will be ready to put a lot of money on the table to improve Asian language learning (nor the Rudd government’s initiative on Asian language learning, which has allocated $62 million over four years, nor Julia Gillard’s pledge that every Australian child would be given the opportunity to study an Asian language halted the decline in language learning, according to the Asia Education Foundation).

Supporting business engagement does not necessarily require large expenditures, but would benefit from constant attention and fresh thinking, such as a bilateral start-up accelerator and venture capital fund, as proposed by Rob Law, Indonesian-Australian observer.

Guiding principles

Two principles should guide Australia’s approach to Southeast Asia. The first is that bilateral relations with Southeast Asian countries are the most important levers of influence to advance Australia’s interests. There is a risk that an ever-increasing focus on coordination among like-minded countries, including the Quad, South Korea and European partners, could distract from the core business of partnering with countries. from Southeast Asia. Better coordination alone will not change the regional balance, but providing Southeast Asian countries with real choices and deeper partnership can.

The second principle is that Australia’s relationship with Southeast Asia will be affected by broader Indo-Pacific policies, and messaging should be managed accordingly. It is easy to point out the failures in the way AUKUS has been communicated, especially to Indonesia and Malaysia. However, AUKUS was not unique: Australia will continue to invest in its deterrence capabilities for decades to come. The dialogue with the region will have to become much more frank, substantial and continuous to help manage possible future shocks and sensitivities.


Comments are closed.