Does Australia’s support for Asean centrality mean it is finally breaking ranks with the US?
- Australia has long followed wherever the American ‘sheriff’ led in its policy towards Southeast Asia, but there are signs of a role reversal
- Canberra has vowed not to view its relations with Asean nations through a ‘China prism’, and the US may ultimately have to follow suit
“You can trust the Americans to do the right thing – after they have tried all the wrong things” – attributed to Winston Churchill.
Despite their rhetoric, US and Australian strategic machinations have ignored Asean’s aspirations to centrality in regional security affairs.
These arrangements only further the US and Australian military-first approach to the region. But the region does not welcome outside-initiated strategic arrangements or power projections. Southeast Asian nations are asking China and the US to decrease their belligerent power projections.
There had been some cause for hope that the US would change its approach to Southeast Asia and that Australia would follow suit. US President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan publicly advocated “competitive coexistence” with China in 2019.
Almost coincident with Campbell’s appointment in January 2021, he co- wrote an article in Foreign Affairs criticising the policies of the Donald Trump administration and advocating “reversing the situation with diplomatic finesse, commercial innovation, and institutional creativity, serious re-engagement; and [an] end to shaking down allies”.
They also fear the US will force Southeast Asian states to choose between supporting America or China. Moreover, they worry the US will create a political and military mess and then pull out, as it did from Vietnam – leaving its “allies and partners” to deal with what it leaves behind – including an angry and vengeful China.
Under prime minister Scott Morrison, Australia aided and abetted the US approach to the region. But this may be changing. On July 6, new Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong gave a pivotal speech at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies in Singapore.
“All countries that seek to work with the region have a responsibility to engage constructively with and through Asean – including major powers…,” she said. “Asean partners can count on Australia to understand and respect the interests of the countries of Southeast Asia. Australia will find its security in Asia, not from Asia.”
These words are music to Asean leaders’ ears. But they will want to see the words put into deeds and in particular how Australia balances this “enlightened” view with that of the US, which does indeed view its relations with Asean countries and Asean itself through the “China prism”.
She also said “Australia has been on the right side of history in Southeast Asia”. This ignores its kinetic support for the US political and military debacle in Vietnam.
There are some signs of recognition from within the US foreign policy establishment that its current approach to Southeast Asia is failing to win support and needs to change. Indeed, some say the Biden administration’s China policy is “bipolar”. At the least, this means there is some dissent about the militarist approach to the region.
Perhaps for once the US will follow Australia’s lead – or at least learn from it. It does seem that Australia has chosen to differentiate its Southeast Asia policy from that of the “sheriff”. If Wong’s rhetoric is implemented – and is successful in improving Australia-Southeast Asia relations, maybe – just maybe – the US might follow.
Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China