Federal Politics

Australia should collaborate closely with ASEAN

Our second-biggest trading partner also has other links to us, JOHN BLAXLAND writes.

Australia has been mesmerised by the glittering prize of trade with China, but has tended to lose sight of countries closer to home. Yet, when aggregated, our second-biggest trading partner is ASEAN - the 10-country Association of South-East Asian Nations. Australia's merchandise trade with China in 2010-2011 accounted for 23per cent, whereas ASEAN accounted for 13.9per cent, Japan 13.8 per cent, Europe (including Britain) 12.2per cent, and the United States 7.6per cent.

Australia and New Zealand have been working to finalise the Australia-ASEAN-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (AANZFTA) but this appears to have slowed to a crawl. In the meantime, a range of educational, security and other institutional links have brought the countries of ASEAN and Australia closer together. With the AANZFTA negotiations in train, Ken Henry's Asian white paper being drafted, and the East Asia Summit fast approaching, there are some compelling reasons for Australia to give serious thought to approaching ASEAN for even closer relations across the politico-economic, security, diplomatic, cultural and educational domains.

ASEAN has a population of about 600 million with English as the common language of commerce and diplomacy. Australia was ASEAN's first dialogue partner in political, economic and functional cooperation, including defence and security matters, and has remained a longstanding partner of ASEAN ever since. Yet ASEAN has not been seen as a cohesive body politic like the European Union. This is in part because of issues such as ASEAN's intramural strife (including the recent dispute on the Thai-Cambodian border) and the pariah status of member states like Burma.

But events in 2011 have changed the regional dynamics. The Thai-Cambodian dispute has faded with the election of Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand, and Burma has been working hard to change its image with a new constitution, elections, and a number of significant reforms implemented in recent months. From Australia's perspective, Burma's steps towards reform and re-emergence on the international stage are a welcome development, particularly as these steps are removing significant obstacles for closer working relations and integration between Australia and ASEAN.

China's Premier Wen Jiabao has re-emphasised that ASEAN should remain in the driver's seat of the numerous regional international forums. His comments speak to the importance for Australia of not only remaining engaged with ASEAN but actively participating with the regional grouping.

At the same time, ASEAN has been grappling with the issue of how to engage with a more assertive China without having to ''kowtow'' unduly and lose economic and political leverage in the process. The reduction of obstacles in the way of ASEAN unity and the greater imperative for strength in numbers in the face of a much larger, assertive and economically powerful neighbour suggests that the future of ASEAN may well be one of greater strength through greater unity.

Building such strength has proven challenging in the face of the region's diversity. ASEAN includes small and large states with people of many races, religions and historical legacies. It is, effectively, a multicultural grouping of nations with many enduring interests in common with Australia, but with little incentive for greater collective action until recently. Australia could play a constructive role in fostering cohesion.

Australia has been a great beneficiary of the waves of migration from South-East Asia with estimates of those in Australia born or descended from Vietnam estimated at nearly 180,000 and from Thailand at about 150,000. Conversely, in countries like Thailand for instance, the alumni of Australian universities and colleges are plentiful and strong, with frequent reunions and strong feelings of affinity towards Australia. Bilateral education links with South-East Asian countries stretch back 60 years since the founding of the Colombo Plan in 1951. A considerable number of Australian graduates of this program have reached a wide range of senior and powerful positions across South-East Asia, providing Australia with unprecedented access.

To be fair, Australia is already a member of a range of ASEAN-centric international bodies such as the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus as well as other regional groupings such as APEC. At the same time, ASEAN has been broadminded about its security arrangements, accommodating the Philippines' and Thailand's military alliance arrangements and Singapore's close logistic ties with the US as well as a range of still nominally communist countries under the one roof. Their flexibility on this point suggest Australia's alliance ties with the US would not be problematic should it seek to be more closely integrated with ASEAN.

The demonstrated good intentions of Australia have earned considerable goodwill across ASEAN. Today Australia is largely recognised as much more nuanced and culturally attuned than in the past and more regionally savvy and relevant than other non-neighbouring OECD countries - in effect, a natural and enduring partner of ASEAN.

Indonesia had the independence rallying cry ''unity is strength''. Arguably, the truth of this applies to ASEAN and to its relationship with Australia. Some would argue Australia would never be welcome as a member of ASEAN. This remains to be seen, but it is in Australia's and ASEAN's interests for closer collaboration, if not full ASEAN membership for Australia.