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Expanding ASEAN: an idea worth burying

By Duncan Graham - posted Monday, 16 April 2018

An Australian in ASEAN. It sounds like the title of an innocent-abroad movie: The hero has adventures, blunders and embarrasses. But in the end Aussie charm and grit prevail; romance blossoms and the outsider becomes an insider.

It's a familiar genre. But this time the characters won't play their assigned roles. The idea of big landmass, small population Australia (26 million), being welcomed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (600 million plus) is still being pushed, though up a gradient that needs crampons.

The notion has been wandering around awhile but got new direction in the weeks heading towards the March ASEAN 'summit' in Sydney, the first of its kind in the Great South Land.


Former ABC foreign correspondent Graeme Dobell writing in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's The Strategist website has been a principal matchmaker.

'Australia's dealings with the ten nations of ASEAN are set by geography, flavoured by history, worked by diplomacy and driven by trade,' he enthused.

'Throbbing always are the central concerns of power and strategy and defence. The geography and the diplomacy and the power mean that Southeast Asia must be a constant interest of Australia's …

'Joining ASEAN is the logical culmination of decades of Australian regional engagement. ASEAN membership would be an embrace of the region in the service of our deepest interests.'

This was in February, when Australian politicians and other newsmakers were reluctantly returning from their summer break, so the commentary drew little notice.

Only when Australian journalist James Massola reporting for Fairfax Press scored a pre-summit interview with Indonesian President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo that the idea was given CPR.


When the leader of the world's third largest democracy was asked about Australia joining ASEAN he said 'I think it's a good idea.' The follow-up whether it would be backed by other countries drew a laugh and the comment: 'I don't know.'

The pole vault from these throw-aways to headlines like 'Indonesia wants Australia as full ASEAN member' should be a Diplomacy IO1 example of cultural clumsiness. Jokowi might well have given the same response to the question: 'Should colonies be built on Mars?'

Massola is a newbie in Jakarta; the job used to be 'Indonesian correspondent'. Now it covers Southeast Asia – population more than 600 million.

Academics brought the hyperbole down with a thud. Foremost was Aaron Connelly, research fellow at the Lowy Institute who tweeted: 'Reality check: Australia has not been invited to join ASEAN, and will not be invited to join ASEAN in our lifetimes. Jokowi was offering a "Javanese response," trying to be polite.'

(Another Javanese reply that perplexes outsiders is: 'Why not?' This doesn't mean 'yes' or 'no' or even 'maybe'.)

Writing on The ConversationDedi Dinarto from Singapore's Nanyang Technological University reminded that Australia was already in a couple of big boys' clubs where they talk guns and bombs - ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty and NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

'The aggressive nature of these pacts goes against ASEAN's non-interference principle. ASEAN emphasises the absence of external military hostility as its core principle,' he said.

Then there's the rule of law and human rights abuses – issues which greatly trouble Australians. They would not keep Mum in situations like Myanmar's purging of Rohingya; nor would they shut up about the sanctioned arbitrary killing of real or imagined drug dealers in the Philippines (President Rodrigo Duterte didn't front the summit), or the widespread crushing of peaceful dissent in states tracking their way into totalitarianism.

The only imaginable benefit is that Australian officials could help prop up the hotel bars following some of the hundreds of chatathons held every year. They could swap name cards, share golf tips and keep personal numbers on speed-dial should trouble flare.

ASEAN was created in 1967 as an anti-communist block. Today three members are Red states - Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the last two sticking close to China. Now the only common glue is geography.

There are four 'emerging' democracies (Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines) two military dictatorships (Thailand and Myanmar) and one authoritarian sultanate (Brunei). Apart from Thailand all were once ruled by colonial powers.

Each state is supposedly equal. All must approve applicants. This ensures Australia can never join under the present arrangement as any one nation can veto.

The rules insist on non-interference in each other's internal affairs so the statements issued after each meeting are gems in polishing thousands of words to say nothing.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who hosted the summit, avoided his culture's directness and offered a more Javanese reply to reporters' questions about joining ASEAN: 'I will look forward to discussing that with President Jokowi if he raises it with me'.

Apparently he didn't.

So far, other members have not responded to Jokowi's rubbery response, though former Malaysian PM Mahatir Mohamad, in another Fairfax interview, thought Australia in ASEAN might happen one day when Australia becomes 'more Asian than European.'

About 12 per cent of Australians have Asian ancestry; however ethnicity is no guarantee of enthusiasm to recouple with the nation they fled.

Cambodian PM Hun Sen was apparently unaware that in Australia violence leads to prosecution, however important the perpetrator. He respected his hosts by threatening to 'beat' those protesting against his presence at the summit. They still waved their banners and shouted slogans, grateful they're not in Phnom Penh.

There's also no public enthusiasm. A Twitter straw poll has shown Indonesians and Australians averse to the idea of Australia in ASEAN. This isn't surprising; despite all the goodwill statements at government level, Mohammad and Sri in their Jakarta kampong are just as wary of their neighbour as Myrtle and Sam are in a Sydney suburb.

So what's behind the Oz in ASEAN push? Dobell reasons that 'as the geostrategic and geo-economic pressures build in Asia, ASEAN, as a middle-power grouping, needs the extra middle-power heft offered by Australiaand NZ.

This would make sense if foreign affairs were conducted by white-coated social scientists in an isolated lab sealed off from outside germs.

But in a world where strategic groupings are subject to political realities infected by different histories, cultures, perceptions and ideologies, Australia in ASEAN is a dead duck. It just needs a quiet burial with no marker.

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About the Author

Duncan Graham is a Perth journalist who now lives in Indonesia in winter and New Zealand in summer. He is the author of The People Next Door (University of Western Australia Press) and Doing Business Next Door (Wordstars). He blogs atIndonesia Now.

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