Australia and Southeast Asia: Australia needs a new plan?

Sep 22, 2022
Group Photograph at 12th East Asia Summit in Manila, Philippines (November 14, 2017)
Image: Flickr / MEA photogallery

At a time when Australia needs an innovative rethinking of its policies towards Southeast Asia, this will not be delivered by the recently announced Defence Strategic Review.

Long regarded by Australian policy makers as a region of stability on our northern approaches and a vast potential market, Southeast Asia has become a region of increasing risk and uncertainty. Yet, in its Foreign Policy White Paper of 2017, the Australian government could only call for a doubling down our engagement with the region by ‘pursuing shared interests with its governments’ and ‘demonstrating enduring ties to the countries of the region.’ This simply reinforces the old Cold War model of engagement between conservative interests in Australia and Southeast Asia that is at the root of the problem.

Great expectations: what went wrong

Based on assumptions of ‘shared interests’ and ‘enduring ties’ successive Australian governments have established a raft of security and defence partnerships and economic and trade agreements as the centrepiece of their strategies towards the region. Other collaborative partnerships are aimed at addressing the spread of ‘terrorism and extremist ideas’ and ‘growing transnational challenges such as crime and people smuggling.’

But things have not gone to plan. The governments of Southeast Asia remain ambivalent about the growing influence of China and there are few signs they are willing to embrace the US alliance in its strategic standoff with China. Australian investment and trade in the region’s much touted emerging and potentially lucrative markets remain at stubbornly low levels and confined largely to mining and energy sectors.

While cooperation on matters of governance and regulation has been successful in important instances, problems of trafficking in peoples, drugs and wildlife, land grabbing, money laundering and environmental destruction remain endemic. Australia seems unable even to convince its closest neighbour, Indonesia, to contain illegal fishing in Australian waters.

There is a feeling among many Australian analysts that we have allowed Southeast Asia to drift away. For some, these are the result of cultural misunderstandings on Australia’s part and the need to learn the ‘Asian way’ of doing things. This comes close to the arguments of Singaporean commentator, Kishore Mahbubani, that there is a civilisational clash between the liberalism of a declining West and the resurgence of ‘Asia Values’ in a newly assertive Asia.

In a 2021 Report, The Business Council of Australia and the Asia Society Australia argued that COVID-19 may give Australia ‘a second chance to get Asia right,’ learning how to ‘play and win in Asia’ by better understanding the complexities of Asian markets and the ‘Asian Way’ of doing business. It pleads with government to provide business with information to help ‘tell its story well through its new national brand’ with the help of ‘hands-on business-focused inputs’ through a new national business advisory group.

In a somewhat different approach, prominent foreign affairs analyst, Allen Gyngell argues in Australian Foreign Affairs, that Australia must make up for a period of diplomatic neglect where Australia’s attention was drawn away from Southeast Asia to the Middle East and to the priorities of its US alliance. He proposes a ‘new statecraft’ aimed at ramping up Australia’s diplomatic engagement and enhancing existing models of cooperation and informal ‘people to people’ networks.

But there are no easy policy or institutional fixes or cultural solutions to Australia’s seemingly faltering engagement with the region. We cannot escape problems through diplomatic hyperactivity or better marketing of ‘brand Australia’. These ignore the systemic factors rooted in the very structures of the region’s political systems and its economies and societies and in Australia itself.

Missing from the debate is an understanding of how the complex forces and interests that define and shape the power of governments in the region make engagement a volatile and highly contingent proposition.

Australia must lose the two central myths of its relationship with Southeast Asia. It must accept that the region will never be the new economic giants of Asia or provide an Eldorado for Australian business. It must accept that the ruling elites of Southeast Asia, except for Singapore, are more interested in imposing and protecting their oligarchic power domestically than establishing their nations as serious geopolitical players. They will always be ambivalent and contingent allies.

Can we ‘dance with dictators’?

The key question is what Australia can expect from friends and allies in the region, especially in those cases where authoritarian politics and oligarchy is resurgent, and rule of law and democracy is in retreat.

These problems were brought to the surface during the ASEAN Leaders Meeting in Sydney in March 2018 when Australia came face to face with some of the political leaders of the region, including those involved in military coups and repression of civil rights and who presided over systems of oligarchy.

For Elaine Pearson, the Director of Human Rights Watch Australia, issues of human rights and social justice were priorities. She proposed that Australia should stop ‘dancing with dictators’ and end military assistance and cooperation with political leaders who presided over ‘horrific human rights abuses across the region.’ She argued that Australia should consider matters of human rights and social justice in framing relations with the governments of Southeast Asia rather than just focusing on questions of security, terrorism, and trade.

There was little enthusiasm for such proposals amongst Australia’s policy makers. As former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, boasted in 2016, he was right never to allow ‘moral posturing’ (we must assume this to include taking stands on such issues as honest government, human rights, or social justice) to threaten Australia’s national security interests.

Abbott’s position was bolstered by the growing influence of security and defence interests in framing Australia’s foreign policy. Incubated in the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and fuelled by the spectre of Islamist insurgency in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia and the spreading power of China in the region, Australian foreign policy shifted towards the idea that all problems (including Southeast Asia) are security problems. It returned to the Cold War assumptions that that authoritarian regimes could protect the strategic and economic interests of the West and drive the process of modernity in the developing world.

Following the lead of the US and the World Bank, neoliberal ideas also became a fundamental pillar of Australian foreign policy in the 1970s and 1980s. For neoliberals, authoritarian regimes could be the ideal vehicle for market reform, able to impose supply side policies, fiscal austerity, privatisation, deregulated markets, and the ending of organised labour and protective policies in a way that democratic regimes could not.

Like Milton Friedman and the Pinochet regime in Chile, Australian policy makers saw the Soeharto government in Indonesia and its technocrats as the ideal vehicles for neoliberal reordering of economic and political power.

As the US discovered in Central America, and the Middle East. making friends with despots and oligarchs did not necessarily bring social order or political stability or economic opportunity. Their interests mean they are caught in ongoing wars against liberal and Leftist reformers and populist insurrections and in capturing the judiciary and the media.

Australian support for police and military in Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand confronted the reality that these forces were primarily a political arm of ruling interests and a partner in economic rent seeking rather than a defence or police force in normally accepted terms.

In the Philippines, Australian military support in helping to bail out a dysfunctional and inept government floundering in the face of an Islamist insurgency may have been little more than another prop for a system of oligarchy that has fuelled political unrest, inequality, and insurrection for over a century.

There are few signs of self-reflection within the ranks of the security lobby in Australia. The retreat from support of military forces in Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia, was less a recognition of the failure of security models than a rush for the exits when the brutality of these regimes began streaming to world audiences on media platforms.

If anything, there is a doubling down on ‘achievable security objectives’ rather than what former Army Chief, Peter Leahy described in the Australian Financial Review of 10-11 July, 2021, as ‘unrealistic forays into social reform and nation building.’

There were also unintended consequences for neoliberals. Policies of ‘shock therapy’ set loose the forces of rentier capitalism and oligarchy. Deregulation and privatisation often transferred public monopolies and assets into the hands of private conglomerates while property laws enabled vast transfers of land to corporate agricultural enterprises and forestry companies.

Belated attempts to limit the damage of rentier capitalism, bad governance, and money politics by programs of ‘good governance’ have largely failed as oligarchs deepen their grip on Southeast Asian politics, most recently illustrated by the return to power of the Marcos family in the Philippines.

Changing the Australian model

Alan Gyngell observed that Australia is not rich or powerful enough to enforce change in the region. He suggests a strategy of ‘persuasion’ and appeals to mutual interest, something like Joseph Nye’s idea of ‘soft power.’

He raised the prospect for a return to a ‘development’ approach. Noting the continuing problems of poverty in Southeast Asia, he suggests ramping up cooperation in health, climate change, renewable energy, technical assistance, and vocational education.

But such an agenda, with its redistributive implications, is not a priority for the most powerful interests in the region and is an agenda that has been largely discarded by Australian policy makers.

Ultimately, reform of Australia’s Southeast Asia strategy will depend on whether the new government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese brings a broader shift in in Australian policy thinking that goes beyond the ideas of threats and risks and market opportunities.

At one level the signs are not promising. The new government remains tied to the US alliance and is fearful of being wedged on security issues, especially in relation to China. It has left the Orwellian Department of Home Affairs relatively intact and most of its highly conservative apparatchiks in place.

Despite its seeming dysfunction, the security model is one that works for the vast ideological and institutional interests now embedded in the Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Defence. These now constitute a broader ‘security state’ that pervades and increasingly defines the public bureaucracy and educational and media institutions.

It is a model that works also for a conservative political coalition that benefits from a public perception of ongoing threat and emergency and the rhetoric of ‘Keeping Australia Safe’ with its fears of terrorism and Chinese expansion.

In part, Australia’s economic relations with the region must also be politically resolved within Australia itself. As The Business Council’s Report, ‘A Second Chance’, notes, Australia cannot offer much beyond mining and energy or beef cattle. It expressed hope that COVID-19 will force Australia to diversify its economy and look for different sources of growth as the world’s centre of economic and political gravity shifts further towards Asia.

But any shift to an industry policy confronts the powerful alliance of neoliberal ideology and the interests of the fossil fuel industry. The Albanese government is wary of challenging the fossil fuel sector at a time when a global energy crisis seems imminent and when revenues from this sector are essential given the huge fiscal deficits the new government faces.

And there are few signs that knowledge industries like education are understood outside the old market and ‘shovel ready’ epithets of previous governments as a key strategic and social resource and one that can build Australia’s presence and prestige in Southeast Asia.

There are some tentative signs of an intent to diversify the economy and to help advance technology and research as Industry and Science Minister, Ed Husic, announced new investment in tech and manufacturing in a $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund.

We can of course, always strengthen our prestige and our authority, at least among the region’s middle classes and its progressive forces by making sure we can make claim to the ethical standards of social justice, human rights and environmental responsibility we often use as criticisms of governments elsewhere.

This article was originally published by Melbourne Asia Review, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.

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