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Expanding ASEAN: an idea worth burying

By Duncan Graham - posted Monday, 16 April 2018

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.

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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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