Albanese’s Australia has a chance to reset ties with Southeast Asia and beyond
- After years of neglecting Asean in pursuit of a closer US alliance, Australia – led by a progressive Labor government – could now revive once-warm relations
- First, though, it will need to regain the confidence of Asean nations, a task new Foreign Minister Penny Wong is ideally suited for
“In this brave new world we cannot rely on great powers to safeguard our interests,” Australia’s then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull declared at the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. He emphasised the need to “take responsibility for our own security and prosperity, while recognising we are stronger when sharing the burden of collective leadership with trusted partners and friends”.
As a US treaty ally, as well as a Commonwealth nation, Australia was often also instrumental to Anglo-American imperial adventures across Southeast Asia. Even the end of Cold War, which bitterly divided the region, didn’t bring immediate relief.
Australia’s deployment of troops to East Timor in the late-1990s, for instance, provoked a diplomatic crisis with Indonesia. If anything, the neoconservative administration of John Howard, which heavily aligned with Washington’s military interventions across the Muslim world, reignited anti-Australian sentiment in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad once publicly challenged Australia to decide “whether it’s an Asian country or a Western country”. Amid diplomatic disputes with Canberra, most dramatically with former Australian leader Paul Keating, he dismissed Australia as nothing but “deputy sheriff to America”.
The Turnbull administration proactively engaged Southeast Asian nations, while underscoring its commitment to “strong and constructive ties with China” in its 2017 foreign policy white paper.
Southeast Asian nations would certainly welcome more stable relations between Canberra and Beijing, and, more crucially, don’t want to be reduced to pawns on a geopolitical chessboard.
In terms of personal diplomacy, it also helps that Australia’s new Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen is similarly fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, while Industry Minister Ed Husic is one of two practising Muslims in the new cabinet.
Instead of lecturing regional states on democracy, or criticising rivals such as China and Russia, Australia should facilitate good governance and sustainable development across the region.
Finally, Australia should double down on its economic ties with Asean, while maintaining robust counterterrorism and non-traditional security cooperation in the region. Australia’s two-way trade with Asean has hovered above US$100 billion in recent years, while two-way investment reached around US$259 billion in 2019. Meanwhile, Asean has been the source of close to 100,000 students for Australian universities in recent years.
The new Australia administration should build on this trend by further relaxing travel restrictions, negotiating new trade and investment agreements, and maximising the boom in the digital economy and other cutting-edge industries across the region.
Undoubtedly, there will be differences across a range of issues, which will have to be deftly managed by both sides. Yet, prospects for expanded Australia-Asean cooperation are extremely promising under the new government in Canberra.
Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific” and the forthcoming “Duterte’s Rise”