While the ASEAN summit was a public relations success it demonstrated to all that the only common factor in the group is that they belong to the one region. If tensions with China were to increase it might not last long as a group. With unresolved ethno-nationalist issues at play we cannot expect much change in relation to human rights or principled stances on sensitive diplomatic questions.
Was ASEAN over-hyped at the recent Heads of State/Government meeting in Sydney, otherwise known as the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit? Was the Australian government’s $56 million well spent?
On the face of it Prime Minister Turnbull was credited with a ‘diplomatic coup’ in getting the group to meet in Sydney with Australia as host. He spoke of ASEAN being the region’s core institution for building and maintaining a rules-based order for trade and security, and seemed content that it exists. The former Indonesian Foreign Minister, Marty Natalalegawa commented in an interview likewise, saying in effect that despite its disappointments its survival all this time was a good thing. For Turnbull the gathering may have boosted his domestic standing, though ASEAN was off newspaper pages within a couple of days.
The group reaffirmed their commitment to ASEAN’s “central” role in an evolving rules-based regional architecture that is, as explained, open, transparent, inclusive, strong, united, resilient, and innovative in promoting stability and prosperity throughout the region. Has there ever been such a highly aspiring organisation in this still turbulent and unsettled region?
By such an overstated description one detects an underlying anxiety about the future, not just because of China’s looming shadow but because they recognise how politically vulnerable some of the group are.
The more vulnerable and the more notorious for lacking integrity in government and human rights, the more repressive they are of freedom of expression and democratic processes because these would challenge their hold on power. It seems we have to live with these incompatibilities if there is to be a regional community relationship at all.
Others beset with populism, religious conservatism and ethnic-nationalism, are simply fragile. A case in point obviously is Myanmar where Aung San Suu Kye, its political leader (nominal or otherwise) is hostage to the Rohingya issue and cannot even speak its name. The Cambodian dictator Hun Sen, looked uncomfortable at times as did Prime Minister Turnbull with him at the official handshake. The Indonesian government’s hands are tied because of increasing pressure from intolerant, extremist Moslem elements as witnessed at the recent Jakarta mayoral elections. From such a tenuous base can there be great expectations for regional stability and sound direction led by ASEAN, as envisaged in the communique?
Apart from politics and looking for the positives, there were special sessions on business relations. The business group, led by the Australia-ASEAN Council, was said to have put an accelerator on Australian economic engagement with ASEAN. Many expressed satisfaction with those sessions.
On security and regional terrorism, there is little that such a group could do in a coordinated and effective manner given their diverse political outlooks and interests. While there was concern that China may be seeking to create divisions among them, for example over trade, investment and South China Sea issues, they have markedly varying positions on these matters and under pressure could be expected to go their separate ways.
For an overview on ASEAN, one writer in the Australian Financial Review went so far as to assert that ASEAN had become the arbiter of what is legitimate in regional politics, meant presumably as a guide to China about how far it should go, or not go, with its pushy conduct and regional claims.
As for counter-terrorism, given a tendency on the part of some to equate internal dissent and protest with insurrection, any distinction between that and international terrorism may be lost. For its part Australia should in future be minded to investigate more thoroughly terrorism claims by individual states than it has in the past. There have been highly consequential errors of judgment in this field (along with the United States) goIng back to the Viet Minh in Indo-China, the PKI in Indonesia, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and over terrorist groups in the Middle East (apart from ISIS but including the Kurds) – most of which were strongly motivated by aspirations of national self-determination, not by a universalist ideology.
There must be doubts now about alleged ISIS terrorism threatening the dictatorial and murderous regime currently in the Philippines, as well as an alleged ISIS threat throughout southeast Asia. Terrorism should not be the go-to word for military interventions.
The meeting did attempt to deal with marginally safer issues such as institutional building and funding for infra-structure development, though the claim that the ASEAN-Australia Infrastructure Cooperation Initiative could counter China’s Belt and Road mega-project and its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was an absurdity. There is a need to clarify where individual ASEAN members stand in relation to competing trade and investment groups, namely the revamped TPP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and the varied and multiple so-called Free Trade Agreements with their confusing, criss-crossing and conflicting commitments.
If there is a regional concern with protectionism, whether of the President Trump variety or sneaky regional ploys, it would be better for all if they were to put their backs behind the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which has much to offer a troubled world if trade conflicts are not to end up as armed conflicts, as previously with two World Wars. This is where a rulesbased system can achieve solid outcomes, beyond mere rhetoric and hollow promises.
Turnbull’s assertion to the meeting that “there are no protectionists here” was another absurdity, spoken in the presence of President Joko Widodo whose Indonesian steel and paper products are being hit currently with punitive duties to protect Australian industries on similar lines to US President Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum. Indonesia has taken steps to obtain justice over this at the WTO.
Has the meeting advanced Australia’s image within the region? Our apparent magnanimity and courtesy towards this group, in spite of the belief that several of its members could be described as criminals, human rights abusers and financial fraudsters, might leave a favourable impression in some Asian countries; but not in those where persecution and worse exists. Another negative is the persistent criticism of our treatment of asylum seekers and our cherry picking and protectionist tendencies in certain areas of trade policy, in spite of claims to the contrary.
While it is all very well to have elaborate get togethers as does ASEAN the only common factor in the group is that they belong to the one region (loosely defined). If tensions with China were to increase they might not last as a group. While a number of their governments remain fragile, with unresolved ethno-nationalist issues in particular, we cannot expect much change in relation to human rights or principled stances on sensitive diplomatic questions.
Meanwhile however Australia can further enhance its own standing through principled stances where these may provide an example to others and encourage them to raise their own standards. This would be facilitated by more generous economic development and technical assistance, stronger cultural exchanges, and a closer observance by us of our international obligations, particularly with regard to human rights and respect for the ‘rule of law’ in both international and domestic jurisdictions.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, academic lawyer and trade policy adviser