America has been trying to use Southeast Asian countries and ASEAN in its contest with China for regional dominance and Australia has long followed America’s lead. But now there is a glimmer of hope that at least the Australian approach towards Southeast Asia may change for the better.
“You can trust the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried all the wrong things” –attributed to Winston Churchill
In relations with Southeast Asia, one could substitute ‘the Australians’ for ‘the Americans’ in Churchill’s aphorism. America has basically been trying to use Southeast Asian countries and ASEAN in its contest with China for regional dominance and Australia has long followed America’s lead. Both have consistently voiced their support for ASEAN centrality in regional security affairs while undermining it with their actions. But now there is a glimmer of hope that at least the Australian approach towards Southeast Asia may change for the better.
Despite their rhetoric, U.S. and Australian strategic machinations have ignored ASEAN’s aspirations to centrality in regional security affairs. Indeed the US-led revival of the Quad – a strategic ‘dialogue’ that sponsors cooperative military projects between the U.S., Australia, India and Japan –is a testament to their perception that ASEAN has been ineffective in dealing with critical regional security issues like the South China Sea and Myanmar. AUKUS – the agreement between Australia the U.K. and the U.S. to supply Australia with nuclear submarine and maritime drone technology as well as allow more basing for U.S. troops and assets – also bypassed and unsettled ASEAN countries. These arrangements only further the US and Australian military – first approach to the region. But the region does not welcome outside- initiated strategic arrangements or power projections. Southeast Asia nations are pleading with China and the U.S. to decrease their belligerent power projections.
There had been some cause for hope that the U.S. would change its approach to Southeast Asia and that Australia would follow. Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had publicly advocated ‘competitive coexistence’ with China. Almost coincident with his appointment in January 2021, he co- authored an article in Foreign Affairs criticising the policies of the administration Of President Donald Trump and advocating “reversing the situation with diplomatic finesse, commercial innovation, and institutional creativity, serious reengagement; and [an] end to shaking down allies”. But apparently he and his colleagues have changed their minds –or had them changed for them. Biden’s U.S. China policy has not only continued that of Trump but even trumped its hypocrisy, condescension, confrontation and militarism. Indeed, US diplomacy has lagged far behind its military signalling.
Many Southeast Asian countries are worried that this means a continuation of the cycle of US-China tit-for-tat military actions and reactions that increase the possibility of conflict and collateral damage for Southeast Asia. They also fear that the U.S. will force Southeast Asian states to choose between supporting the U.S. or supporting China. Moreover, they worry that the US will create a political and military mess and then pull out as it did from Vietnam—leaving its ‘allies and partners’ to deal with what it leaves behind – including an angry and vengeful China.
Under Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Australia aided and abetted the US approach to the region.
But this may be changing. On 6 July, new Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong gave a pivotal speech at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies in Singapore. When relevant excerpts are strung together they make an impressive impression of a new policy towards Southeast Asia and ASEAN in the making. She declared that from here on Australia will engage ASEAN on its own merits and not through a ‘China prism’. “All countries that seek to work with the region have a responsibility to engage constructively with and through, ASEAN – including major powers.” “ASEAN partners can count on Australia to understand and respect the interests of the countries of Southeast Asia. We will find our security in Asia, not from Asia.”
These words are music to ASEAN leaders’ ears. But they will want to see their implementation and in particular how Australia balances this ‘enlightened’ view with that of the U.S. which does indeed view its relations with ASEAN countries and ASEAN itself – through the ‘China prism’.
Her speech contained some hints of that attempt to balance between the desires of ASEAN countries and the U.S. She claimed that Australia sees the Quad as working alongside ASEAN to strengthen our shared interests with the countries of Southeast Asia.” That’s why my Prime Minister [Anthony Albanese] and I traveled to Tokyo to the Quad leaders meeting right after our election.” I doubt ASEAN leaders think the purpose of their trip and the meeting was primarily because of their desire to benefit ASEAN. This is disingenuous to say the least.
Wong also claimed that Australia would be guided “by the principles of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” in building the regional order we seek.” But that Outlook is ‘inclusive’ meaning that it wants to include China, while the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy excludes China. She also claimed that “Australia has been on the right side of history in Southeast Asia.” This ignores its kinetic support for the U.S. political and military debacle in Vietnam.
There are also some glimpses from within the US foreign policy establishment that some recognise its current approach to Southeast Asia that uses it against China is failing to win support and needs to change. Indeed some say the Biden administration’s China policy is “bipolar.” At the least this means there is some dissent from the militarist approach to the region.
Perhaps for once the U.S. will follow Australia’s lead—or at least learn from it. It does seem that Australia has chosen to differentiate its Southeast Asia policy from that of the ‘Sheriff’. If Wong’s rhetoric is implemented—and successful in improving Australia-Southeast Asia relations– maybe –just maybe the U.S. might follow.
An edited version of this piece appeared in the South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/asia/article/3184950/does-australias-support-asean-centrality-mean-it-finally