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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.

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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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