The ASEAN-Australian summit provided an opportunity for Australia to get close to countries and leaders important to us and to make a public statement to that effect. The media coverage in Australia tended to focus on human rights in Cambodia and Myanmar which was not what ASEAN was here to discuss. However, Prime Minister Najib made an interesting comment about the potential for ISIS to exploit the Rohingya crisis. Discussion on Australia joining ASEAN was mostly about whether ASEAN wanted us but largely ignored whether Australia was in a position to join an organisation that would require it to oppose nuclear weapons and the use of violence against other countries.
I will not repeat what has been said elsewhere in a detailed analysis of the summit but simply make a few observations on things which have not received much attention. The trade benefits have been well covered and the strategic implications have been stressed. ASEAN is not the answer to all our prayers and has its weaknesses but it is if we want to remain independent from China or even from the USA it provides allies and a vehicle for communication with countries that matter to us and will matter even more in the future.
The media coverage was reasonable in quantity but tended to focus on the demonstrations about human rights in Cambodia and Myanmar which, however serious, was not what ASEAN was here to debate. ASEAN’s charter and practice is not to intervene in the domestic affairs of member states which puts obvious restrictions on what it can do. It did however agree to cooperate in solving the problem which means it may be trying to do something without the glare of publicity. Whether or not that is the case those commentators who berated ASEAN for not addressing the problem more directly missed the point of what the meeting was all about. An interesting comment, however, was made by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib who said that it was not just a humanitarian crisis but the problem in Rakhine State created an opportunity for ISIS to radicalise Muslims and thus could be scene as a security threat to the region and not just a domestic matter. This was not analysed with care in the media but surely it presents a possible approach for ASEAN and others to intervene or at the very least to pressure Myanmar on the grounds that it is not a purely domestic matter? It is an idea worth thinking about.
The other point which gave rise to comment was the suggestion from Jokowi that Australia might join ASEAN. We may debate how serious he was but the idea has been around for a long time. The focus of comment was on whether ASEAN would accept Australia but very little on whether Australia was in a position to join. Surely joining ASEAN would strike a major blow to our dependence on the USA? Australia would be required to agree to a nuclear ban and to eschew the use of force in international relations. We have shown no inclination to do either of these things but on the contrary we depend on the US nuclear umbrella to protect us from whoever it is that is supposed to invade us and we have a history of using force e..g. in Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan. We may well be asked by the US to join them in another ill considered adventure and feel obliged to follow. While the US is quite happy for Australia to be close to ASEAN countries it would be most upset if we joined at the expense of US interests. ASEAN countries made it very clear in the summit and at the associated private dialogue that they were not interested in taking sides between US and China even though some of them do in fact do so -some with the US and some with China. However, the organisation as such does not but works in its own way to come to a workable relationship with China and the USA.
The meeting did enable Australia to highlight some independence from the US in trade matters and to side with China and the ASEAN countries on a rules based approach to free trade which the US does not accept. Possibly the most important advantage for Australia is the perception that we are close to our neighbours and the opportunity to meet leaders and discuss questions of mutual interest. The ASEAN approach is one of consensus and private discussion even though a free press in some countries can be quite aggressive. The Australian way is to let it all hang out in public. This doesn’t always make things easy.
Cavan Hogue is a former Australian diplomat who served in four Southeast Asian countries as head of mission or deputy and ran the relevant Branch and Division in Canberra.