Since 1949, the celebrated Australia’s prime minister Sir Robert Gordon Menzies had paid growing attention to South East Asia, the ‘Near North.’ Then, concerns over the spread of Communist influence in the region and the value of Malaya/Malaysia and Singapore as forward bases – both placed in the centre of two dynamic regions, the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions – convinced Canberra that Australia’s historical isolation from the East had to be ended.
Today, Australia shows itself extremely interested in South-East Asian issues, due to its peculiar feature: the area is in the throes of rivalry between China and the United States and its allies. China’s overwhelming economic presence in South East Asia’s growing economies has created a series of opportunities for Beijing from the Philippines to Myanmar, from Thailand to Brunei. In his first speech on foreign policy, the prime minister Scott Morrison called upon Australia’s strategic partners and allies in the region, namely, Vietnam, Singapore, and Indonesia to work closely to pursue common interests and achieve shared outcomes. Australia’s two-way trade with the region now exceeds 100 billion dollars. Australia became the first of ASEAN’s ten dialogue partners in 1974. Since October 2013, Australia has a resident ambassador to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta.
Asia accounted for two-thirds of Australia’s trade in goods, up from a fifth in the earliest 1960. Recent surveys by Australian business community show the level of Australian investment in South East Asia to be relatively low, even at a time when South East Asia lured a total 137 billion dollars in 2017, an unexpected record of flows. The Australia’s proximity to the South-East Asian nations makes transporting export commodities such as coal, minerals, wool, much cheaper than other countries. In many ways, it is said that Australian economy and the economies of South East Asia are complementary. Economic imperatives alone would seem to justify Australia’s turn towards the area.
In March 2018, Australia hosted nine of ASEAN countries at a special ASEAN summit ‘Down Under’, the first in 45-year relationship with the longstanding Asian organisation. Joining the ASEAN can be considered as the culmination of Paul Keating’s idea in 1992 that Australia should be associated with Asia. In an interview a few days ahead of the 2018 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, Indonesian president Joko Widodo approved the possible Australia’s membership to the ASEAN. Despite these growing connections, to some South-East Asian leaders, such as Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, Australia remains ‘an outpost of Europe.’ In addition, Australia considers ASEAN a talking-shop and the ‘ASEAN Way’ a rather flawed decision-making process in reaching at an agreement.
Along with the economic considerations, more importantly however are strategic aspects of co-operation with the region. During the Cold War, Canberra committed its own troops to Malaya in the “Emergency”, in the “Confrontation” between Indonesia and Malaysia and in the Second Indochina War. In the latest 1990s, indeed, the Australian-led multinational force INTERFET mission – one of the nation’s largest military deployment – brought an end to blistering violence that was racked Timor-Leste after the conflict with Indonesian troops. Now, both Australia and some South-East Asian countries reiterate similar worries about the Beijing’s openly aggressive military posture in the South China Sea, where a war could escalate due to fail to narrow the existing differences. Australia continues to strengthen its military alliance with the US and its military engagement in the Indo-Pacific. In 2019, 66 percent agree US president Donald Trump has weakened Australia’s alliance with Washington. 56 percent believe the alliance with the US makes Australia safer from attack or pressure from China, as the Lowy Institute Poll shows. Nevertheless, instead of conducting the Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) along with the US Pacific Fleet, Canberra is bracing for heading off a violent confrontation, by seeking to ease tensions and continuing to urge peaceful negotiations.
Many analysts urged an immediate increase in spending on diplomacy, trade and aid to 1.5 percent of the federal budget. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation chairwoman, Ita Buttrose, has called for additional funding for national broadcasting so the public can play a bigger role in soft diplomacy in South East Asia and the Pacific. Vietnam, one of Australia’s fastest growing trade partners becoming essential to attain regional security in South East Asia, will receive from the federal government an estimated 78.2 million dollars in total official development assistance (ODA) in 2019-20. But, while providing economic aid in a bid to ensure an important strategic partner against the rise of China, Canberra casts doubt on the systematic violation of human rights from Vietnam and other South-East Asian countries: Van Kham Chau, who fled Vietnam to Sydney after the Second Indochina War, was convicted for recruiting new members and for financing terrorism as a senior position in the New South Wales branch of Viet Tan, a human rights NGO, which is considered a terrorist organisation by the Vietnamese Government.
Canberra has signed a defence co-operation agreement with Jakarta to provide a formal framework for practical co-operation under the 2006 Lombok Treaty on maritime security. Australia has been a first mover in enhancing co-operation with Indonesia, a stable and democratic neighbour. Morrison and Jokowi discussed on the Australia-Indonesia bilateral free trade pact, signed last March, which Australia is expected to ratify, despite trade unions and the Green opposition to it. Although there are no provisions committing both governments to implement basic labour rights and environmental standards, this agreement will create new opportunities for Australian-owned businesses in the region and help increase the bilateral trading volumes at a time of global economic uncertainty.
Since the late 1980s, the geographical dilemma regarding whether Australia is an Asian country has regularly emerged. As time progressed, Australian’s commitment in South East Asia was not limited to investments and security, but it heeds the importance of mutual co-operation in several economic sectors. If it is true that Australia’s ‘emotional links’ continue to be with the Anglosphere, not with Asia, the current government is moving forward to deepen cross-regional linkages between the ‘Near North’ and the Pacific island nations, the ‘backyard’ of Australian strategic interests. That means Australia needs to rethink the geographical dilemma in a way Australians will have to speak as ASEAN when they talk about the future of both the region and Asia as a whole.