Foreign Affairs

Turnbull – What Are You Doing at the ASEAN Summit?

UWA student Desiree Durrani discusses Australia's place in ASEAN affairs and argues why Australia should not be permitted to join.

On the 17th of March, the Prime Minister welcomed leaders of the countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, also known as ASEAN, to the second ever ASEAN-Australia Summit, hosted in Sydney. The focus of this event was to build on a “deep legacy of economic cooperation, political dialogue, and the natural interweaving of our people to establish a contemporary, outward-looking partnership”. This has come as no surprise, as Turnbull has emphasised an importance on trade with our closest neighbours, but the whole circumstance of it is confusing.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, shortened to Jokowi, caused a flurry of confusion and speculation both in Australia and in Asia after his comments to Fairfax Media about his support for allowing Australia to join ASEAN, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald. He said that it “would be a good idea” and ASEAN can benefit politically and economically – bringing more stability to the region. After all, Australia has introduced initiatives to get involved with its immediate neighbours, and has benefitted from the booming trade with multilateral agreements.

Though this does look promising, as holding the summit in Australia, a non-ASEAN country, speaks to an appreciation for Australia’s approach to diplomacy with its neighbours, this does not mean Australia should join the organisation. Here’s why:

Australia is not in Asia

An obvious one, no matter what various Prime Ministers have said – Australia is never going to be in Asia. In order for any serious considerations for Asian leaders to accept Australia as one of their own, Australia needs to develop comprehensive engagement with Asia. The failure of the Asia Pacific Community (APC) during Kevin Rudd’s term in 2007 in a classic example of why Australia should stay out. The APC was nothing more than a grand long-term vision for regional cooperation between Australia, Asia and the United States. It seemed like a great idea, and a good way of making Australian presence known to the economic powerhouses around the table. However, what Rudd failed to do was actually research what ASEAN is. Rudd not only offended Singapore by leaving them off the list of core ASEAN member countries[1] (it is well-known that the country is an Asian Tiger), he failed to recognise the ASEAN norm of ‘talk quietly, consultation first’ and actually consult the ASEAN leaders. Rudd’s unilateral announcement caused a number of awkward dilemmas, and embarrassment to Australia.

Another example would be the establishment of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC. Again, it sounded like a great idea; the presence of institutional arrangements to support regional economic cooperation which lacked in the Asian region.[2] However, weak institutional structures and the political differences between Australia and its Asian neighbours over the appropriate strategies and priorities for trade impeded APEC from being a successful economic integration tool for Australia to be included in the Asian region. Australia’s inability to negotiate with its Asian partners and its inability to fix the structural problems has compromised its place in the region, and is a reason why ASEAN leaders will never allow Australia in as a member.

Moreover, Australian culture is a far-cry from Asia and Asian values. Australia has, and will always be a country that is “white, belonging to an English-speaking world”[3]. Australians would reject the idea of an “Asianised Australia”, already unhappy with the increased house prices pushed by Asian business immigrants. The rise of the East Asian economies in the 1980s, which included China and Japan, presented new opportunities for Australia; the Australian government at the time, under Prime Minister Paul Keating, emphasised the need for Australia to engage economically and politically. Keating then invited backlash from both the Australian parliament and population after he made a speech where he termed Australia an ‘Asian’ country, and pointed to a “double culture” identity – a country with both a Western and Asian culture embedded in its society.

Bringing Australia into ASEAN would mean not only acceptance into Asia, it would make Australia part of Asia, or at least Southeast Asia. Australia has done well in acknowledging some of its Asian culture, brought by the Asian immigrants who have made Australia their home, but its interests are more in economic interaction and should remain so. Australia does not need to change its cultural traditions to negotiate economic trade deals.

Australia and the ‘ASEAN Way’

The ‘ASEAN Way’ refers to ASEAN’s principle of non-interference – a non-aggression pact which seeks to restrain aggression and preserve each state’s sovereignty. The ‘ASEAN Way’ requires consensus, which means that all 10 member states need to agree to Australia joining[4]. Yes, President Jokowi’s endorsement carries plenty of weight as leader of the most populous and powerful country in the region. What is not reported, and is unclear, is how widespread this enthusiasm is among the other leaders. From where Australia stands, as a nation that does not share commonality but security with Asia, it doesn’t look promising. Time after time, the leaders’ displeasure at the thought of Australia is simply expressed: ‘You’re not from around here. You don’t think like us. You don’t belong.’ Unless you change their perception, it will be impossible for Australia to join.

Moreover, Turnbull’s approach to diplomacy is vastly different from the ‘ASEAN Way’. He wants to take initiative, he wants to lead discussions and definitely does not want the ASEAN chair to be speaking for Australia, especially in talks with a great power like China. This is nothing like the consensus approach adopted, and Australia will be expected to follow suit if they were to join. 

Australia’s choice: China or the US?

Australia’s inability to engage with its Asian neighbours without US presence is a roadblock to its initiatives to join Asia. Asian governments, especially China and Malaysia, refuse to participate in any discussion panel with the US when it comes to Asia. They argue that Rudd had not discussed his intentions with any of Australia’s Asian neighbours to include the US where it did not concern them. This was seen as a “vulnerable” move that “did not aim to promote Asian regional integration but rather offered protection from Asia”.[5] The US is a global power that makes regionalism workable if only directly. It is fact that the US has penetrated into Asia for decades, balancing the rise of China and communism in Asia. However, Australia’s continued reliance on the US for regional security signalled an unwillingness to seriously engage with ASEAN and Asia, and undermines its credibility for ASEAN membership.

Moreover, Australia cannot afford to lose China as a trading partner. China contributes 76% of Australia’s project investments and remains the second largest recipient of China’s foreign direct investment[6] which helps power the Australian economy. By continuously bringing the US into talks with Asia, Australia stands to lose more by not playing on China’s side if it were to join ASEAN – whose member states also depend on China. Australia is put in a unique position, where an Asian version of regionalism favours China but disadvantages the US, but a Pacific version of regionalism favours the US but disadvantages (and angers) China in its own backyard. If Australia were to join, it would seriously need to consider where its alignment lies, and serious economic and security repercussions would arise if Australia decides to align more with Asia for the sake of regional cooperation in ASEAN.

Adding fuel to an already large flame

Over the last few years, ASEAN has become increasingly divided along nationalist lines. The weaker states, such as Cambodia and Vietnam, have become increasingly captive to their economic relationships with Beijing, and as such their self-interests are inevitably tied to supporting China’s position on issues such as the disputes in the South China Sea. These countries have Chinese investments poured into their economies to keep them going, hence it has proved difficult to reach a united consensus even without Chinese presence in ASEAN meetings, as shown in the 45th in 2012.[7]

Another example closer to home is ASEAN’s ineffectiveness in addressing the Rohingya refugee crisis. This does not and will not sit well with the Australian public – which will inevitably hinder Turnbull’s attempt in joining ASEAN. Australia is a country that prides itself on human rights advocacy and condemning any form of abuse, as seen in the Sydney protests on the morning of this ASEAN-Australia Summit. If Australia expects to continue being the ‘little sheriff’ in the region, it would not be able to do so freely upon joining ASEAN, so as to respect the ASEAN Way; this is a problem for both the Australian public and for agencies such as Amnesty International. Turnbull would have to ignore the Australian public’s outcry to take definitive action and to stand firm on its anti-human rights abuse stance, in order to observe the “talk quietly, consultation first” rule. Unlike the EU that states that democracy is a precondition to join, ASEAN was formed when most of the states were authoritarian, which causes a schism between Australia and ASEAN.

Is Australia ready for that? No, and will never be. Australia prides itself as a functioning Western democracy, thus will never get along with its ASEAN counterparts. Australia and ASEAN cannot unite on common ground in its response, because there is nothing in common in the first place. It would be in Australia’s best interest to steer clear of ASEAN, and downplay the thought of joining.


There is nothing wrong with Australia engaging in talks with ASEAN and Asia in general. It is vital to the Australian economy, and forming good relations with our Asian neighbours is important to Australian security and sovereignty. However, joining ASEAN is the wrong way to do it. Australia is too different, and its focus should be economic agreements and trade deals, whether bilaterally or multilaterally.

Turnbull: don’t bite off more than you can chew, and don’t interfere with an organisation that only has one, sometimes ineffective, way of dealing with its issues that is not aligned to Australia’s policy.

[1] I’m not kidding, refer to ‘Asia Pacific Community: Reinventing the Wheel?’ by Colin Heseltine, pg. 4-6

[2] Refer to “Twenty years of Australia’s engagement with Asia” by Ann Capling in the Pacific Review, pg. 606.

[3] Refer to The Awkwardness of Australian Engagement with Asia: The Dilemmas of Australian Idea of Regionalism by Baogang He, pg. 279-280.

[4] Refer to the Bangkok Declaration of 1967

[5] Refer to “Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia 1850-1939” by David Walker pp. 66.

[6] Refer to ‘Demystifying Chinese Investment in Australia’, a report done by KPMG, May 2016.

[7] Refer to “The Effectiveness of ASEAN under External Pressure: Cases of Myanmar’s Accession and the South China Sea disputes” by Timothy Rotolo, pg. 32.

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