Geostrategic expanse of the Indian and Pacific Oceans into the Indo-Pacific space and the emergence of Quad, designed to balance China, brought the importance of ASEAN to a completely new level. Southeast Asia has become an especially important part in the diplomacy of China, the United States and other actors in the region. Australia is also no exception and is trying to intensify the pace of its involvement in Southeast Asia. However, Canberra’s efforts are accompanied by mixed success, especially due to a change in its foreign policy strategy.
Australia and Quad’s Current Approach to ASEAN
With the development of the United States’, Japan’s and Australia’s visions of the Indo-Pacific, academic discourse has been filled with theses that the ASEAN countries need Quad support to counter the growing power — the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Indeed, Beijing is not standing still. The PRC strengths its defence capabilities, economic and humanitarian agenda in the region, but militarization is far from being unilateral.
The fact is that the politicized nature of this concept itself contributes to the militarization of the Indo-Pacific. For example, everyone knows that ASEAN is trying to stop any outbreaks of instability in Southeast Asia and has come a long way to move beyond from the Cold War thinking. However, during the Annual U.S.—ASEAN Summit, the US Navy and Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) decided to conduct exercises in the South China Sea. They included the US aircraft carrier strike group and Japanese helicopter destroyer. As a result, the summit did not appear in most flattering light from the conflict mitigation. Rather, on the contrary.
The ASEAN countries are trying to balance between the United States and China, to benefit from the development of the region, in order to also withstand the consequences of the pandemic. The Association has also published an outlook on the Indo-Pacific, but it is clearly not interested in politicizing this issue, as well as in choosing between the United States and China. This is also confirmed by the Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong’s quote, “Countries in the region want to have good relations with both, the US and China, and do not wish to take sides”.
One must admire Australia’s steps to strengthen relations with ASEAN during the pandemic, starting from the humanitarian agenda. In 2020, Canberra presented a new strategy ‘Partnerships for Recovery: Australia’s COVID-19 Development Response’, which focuses on the aid to the South Pacific countries, Timor-Leste and Southeast Asia in healthcare and economy.
However, further attempts to politicize cooperation outweighed quite promising strategy. Some experts have already noticed Australia’s statements related to the ‘China threat’ during bilateral meetings with the diplomats of some ASEAN countries. It put the Australia’s partners from Southeast Asia in an awkward position. According to Australia’s PM Scott Morrison, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam are close friends for Australia. However, the aggravation of Australia-China relations can only distance Canberra from ASEAN members.
The AUKUS Factor in Australia-ASEAN Relations
Another step towards ‘ensuring stability’ in the region was the establishment of AUKUS trilateral alliance, which includes Australia, the U.S. and the UK. According to the statements, it is aimed at deepening defence and tech cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. A lot has already been said about AUKUS, so it is better to focus here on the ASEAN members’ perception of the new alliance.
The AUKUS parties assure that it is not directed against any power. However, the nature of this alliance is based on the rivalry between the United States and China. Everyone understands this, including experts, politicians and ordinary observers. Of course, Australia can get new opportunities from AUKUS to strengthen its defence capability. The experts from the Fifth Continent have long been discussing the need of nuclear fleet. However, it will not appear in Australia soon, and it will require great technological, infrastructural and financial efforts.
Nevertheless, the establishment of AUKUS has already influenced the diplomacy. It showed that Australia can cancel previous agreements. Regardless of the statements, the countries will keep this in mind when building further cooperation with Australia – and even the US.
Nuclear submarines are very useful for defence. In the straits between the Pacific Island countries (PICs), Australia can use them imperceptibly, since PICs do not have high-tech capabilities to detect submarines. But potential presence of the Australia’s submarines in Southeast Asia may raise questions.
AUKUS has made Australia a bridgehead for military power projection against the PRC. It is important to remember that the US won’t provide technology for nothing. Probably the price is Australia’s support for the rivalry against the rise of China in the region. The potential permission for Australia’s submarines to access the straits from Indonesia, as the closest ASEAN member, would mean its support for anti-Chinese actions. But the Indonesian authorities are clearly not interested in aggravating relations with China.
Australian diplomats have been working for decades to strengthen ties with Southeast Asia. They have made considerable efforts to show that Australia is one of the regional actors that is ready to cooperate with Asian countries with common future. As a result, common grounds that were established with great difficulty are being threatened in the 21st century. As Australia-China relations get worse, the ASEAN members could temporarily pull away from Canberra.
Malaysia and Indonesia have already expressed concerns about another nuclear submarine fleet. The ASEAN members believe that this makes the region more conflict-prone, not safe. This makes the countries of Southeast Asia think more about the consequences during the dialogue with Australia, which is sharply opposed to China.
Australia has a strong school of diplomacy and analysis in international relations. It’s probably on this basis that Prime Minister Scott Morrison was advised to reassure the ASEAN countries through the media that Canberra doesn’t want to aggravate the situation in the region. It’s not yet known whether his interview helped to convince the leaders from Southeast Asia.
Economy and Trade as a More Productive Way to Ensure Regional Stability
The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Australia and ASEAN could rectify the situation. But it will be difficult to get statements of friendship from one of the concrete Southeast Asian countries in the recent conditions.
The quote of the Director-General of the Department of Asian Affairs of the Foreign Ministry of China, Liu Jinsong, seemed notable. He said: “Whenever there is crisis or problem in the region, Australia looks to the West for friends, not the East. Australia tried to persuade ASEAN countries to jointly target China, but ASEAN countries won’t do it”. This accurately characterizes the current state of affairs. Notably, Asia accounts for 65,2% of Australia’s bilateral trade.
During the pandemic era, strengthening economic and humanitarian cooperation with ASEAN members would help Australia gain diplomatic benefits. Southeast Asia needs a favorable environment for developing trade, supply chains, and healthcare. Assertive military agenda is unlikely to find a positive response, especially during the global crisis.
According to forecasts, ASEAN members’ total GDP will grow rapidly by 2050. For example, Indonesia may probably become the 4th largest economy in the world. On the contrary, the Australian economy may decrease. In order to maintain economic growth in the future, Canberra certainly needs to strengthen relations with ASEAN and right now, while the good image of Australia as a reliable economic partner that possesses technology and high-quality goods is still alive.
Recently, Quad has intensified its infrastructure rivalry with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For this purpose, the parties will certainly combine their initiatives — Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (Japan), Blue Dot Network — the U.S., or Pacific Step-Up (Australia). Together, their capital exceeds $100 billion. For now, India wisely decided to abstain from joining and took a careful position on this issue.
Participation in the Quad have spurred Australia to action. In June 2021, together with Germany and Switzerland, it committed to provide about US$13 million to the Mekong River Commission for Sustainable Development. We may see more Canberra’s activity in Southeast Asia, but it is still more focused on strengthening its positions in the South Pacific. Besides, as in other areas, the perception of Quad infrastructure initiatives by Southeast Asian countries will still be restrained.
They will not choose political agenda instead of economic well-being. After all, Australia, even together with the United States, will not be able to compensate for the economic costs in case of the potential aggravation of relations between ASEAN and Beijing.
With extensive diplomatic experience, ASEAN is clearly aware of the scale of China’s rise and the US plans to counter it. The countries of Southeast Asia clearly don’t want to become part of this rivalry. They are already facing many challenges, including the impact of the global crisis, the pandemic, the current situation in Myanmar and so on.
The antagonization of Australia against China will also lead to distancing of ASEAN from Canberra. To earn trust in the region, Australia needs to take a different strategy. It’s necessary to reinforce the mutual dialogue on the basics of cooperation for the economic and humanitarian benefits. In the rivalry for ASEAN’s favour, the party that can propose more mutual interests and opportunities for cooperation will certainly win.
Of course, Vietnam, Indonesia and other ASEAN members will continue to build up their defence potential and host politicians from China, the United States, Australia and other countries. However, in the short and medium term, ASEAN will prefer to use the strategy of careful and prudent balancing.
Artyom Garin is a Research Assistant of the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He is interested in multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific, as well as in Australia-China relations. His research interests also include defence and aid policies of Australia, as well as politics and history of the Pacific Island countries.