Our place in the Asian century
South-east Asia research at ANU has strongly shaped understanding of the region.
With the recent publication of the AsiaLink Commission Report, Professor Tony Milner and Dr Sally Percival Wood have put ASEAN front and centre in the policy debate about Australia and its approach to engagement with the Asia-Pacific or ''Indo-Pacific'' region.
The report points out that ''in thinking of the 'Asian century', Australian public discussion has been mesmerised by China''. The report explains that by deliberating on how best to balance our economic dependence on China against our alliance with the United States we have tended to overlook the complexity of Asia. Milner and Percival Wood make clear that ASEAN is fundamental to how Australia operates internationally. The report argues Australia should see ASEAN as the ''third way'', providing an alternative to the apparent zero-sum argument of engagement with China or the United States. They compellingly argue that working from an Australia-south-east Asia base will help us to adjust politically to the dramatic rise of China while also making Australia a more valuable US ally.
Former foreign minister Gareth Evans, in his foreword, says ''all of us need as many close friendships as we can'' and such friendships do not need to be at the expense of relationships with the US and China, and with Japan and South Korea or with India. Alexander Downer similarly observes that Australia is ASEAN's Western, affluent, successful and on balance friendly and helpful neighbour. That's where our regional diplomatic strategy should start, he argues. From there we can more successfully build outwards. Echoing the sentiments of his predecessors, Australia's current Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, has endorsed this view in both word and deed.
The report states that a strong Australia-ASEAN relationship cements us as part of Asia in the Asian century. It further argues that there is reason for confidence that an ASEAN strategy will attract strong support among ASEAN nations, particularly as we co-operate more closely on non-traditional security problems, while also fostering greater defence collaboration, closer economic ties as well as deeper educational links, regional connectivity, energy and environmental sustainability technologies, and food security.
The first recommendation is worth recounting: ''Give the ASEAN region a central place in the Australian international narrative, as a natural partner and neighbour - a collaborative relationship compatible with Australia's strategic objectives as a US ally.'' The second is like it: ''Commit credible and sustained resources to lifting Australia's profile in south-east Asian countries and the ASEAN region's profile in Australia.''
As we think about the ramifications of this report, it is worth reflecting on the work undertaken in the field at the Australian National University. Dr Surin Pitsuwan, the outgoing Secretary General of ASEAN, recently spoke at the launch of the ANU's south-east Asia institute. He wrily ''welcomed'' Australia to south-east Asia and asked that we not forget ASEAN. But he knew well that the ANU has the largest community of academic specialists on south-east Asia in the world, outside south-east Asia itself. About 80 academics have significant research interests in south-east Asia, and they supervise about 200 research students, as well as teaching a range of undergraduate and masters courses in south-east Asian Studies. The institute is located within the university's College of Asia and the Pacific, but it serves scholars on south-east Asia throughout the university.
The ANU's researchers have provided expert advice to administrations in both south-east Asia and Australia, having also trained generations of diplomats and government officials working in the area. In fact, south-east Asia research at ANU has strongly shaped national and international understandings of the region.
One of the significant recommendations in the report is to ''Utilise Track Two dialogues that can help identify new areas for Australia-ASEAN collaboration and also help develop deeper network relations.'' A key Track Two regional organisation is the Council for Security Co-operation in the Asia Pacific. The Australian Member Committee of CSAP, AUS-CSCAP, was established by the ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre under Professor Des Ball. This organisation has operated on a shoestring budget while exerting considerable influence around the region.
Good work has been done so far but there is plenty more to do to further cement the ties and attract that strong support from our neighbours. And adequate funding on south-east Asian affairs, including languages, in secondary and tertiary education is a critical component as Australia seeks to better position itself to engage with its neighbourhood.
John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.