Australia and ASEAN: partnership for the region

by Dr Nattavud Pimpa

Australia has been ASEAN's dialogue partner since 1974. In fact, we are the first single nation that partnered with ASEAN for a number of economic, political and cultural reasons. Since the establishment of our relationship Australia has been working with ASEAN on a number of key issues. Some examples include (1) combating terrorism in the region, (2) fighting transnational crimes, (3) aid and development in infrastructure and education, (4) disaster risk reduction, (5) prevention of human trafficking and disaster management in the region.

We have been the major key trade partner with ASEAN. As reported at the ASEAN summit last week in Bali, the combined value of the ASEAN economy and the Australian economy is US$3 trillion. ASEAN is clearly the most important multilateral partner for Australia. It was obvious that all partners attending the 2011 ASEAN summit pushed the agenda of economic integration and regional connectivity among members of ASEAN and Australia.

One issue, however, remains problematic. And we are talking about the tense situation between the US and China over the South China Sea issue. ASEAN-China relationship has been one of the most significant examples in the world trade issue. The value of China-ASEAN trade reached US$ 171 billion in the first six months of 2011, around one-tenth of China's total during that period. When it comes to this dispute in the South China Sea, the consensus for this year was that this issue should be kept peaceful. In fact, it has been reported in the media that the discussions among international delegates were 'frank' and 'sincere'. Although the option for peaceful resolution of dispute is ideal, Hillary Clinton who also participated at Asia's largest forum may not appear to agree with such solution. She insisted "claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features." This statement may potentially be misinterpreted by Chinese government and some members of ASEAN. Last year at ASEAN meeting the tension between the American and Chinese Governments was witnessed after Ms. Clinton claimed that Washington could play umpire in the dispute. All delegates from Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia agreed that peaceful solution with less non-ASEAN interference is crucial for this sensitive case.

This situation may leave Australia in an awkward position. Being perceived as the 'little America' in the eyes of ASEAN is not desirable, although this point has been painted by some non-mainstream media in the region. With our robust link with China, Australian economy has been immuned from the poison of the global financial crisis. Kevin Rudd along with K. Shanmugam, Singaporean foreign minister, put forth the idea that the ASEAN regional forum must demystify the concept of regional security by encouraging participation by all nations (including major powers). What role should Australia play in this regional situation? How to balance the influences from China and the US in the association?

In fact, as one of the key players in the region, Australia can contribute significantly to ASEAN and promote partnership with ASEAN members. Australian and the ASEAN must discuss not only the ASEAN Political and Security Community, but also the future of ASEAN Economic Community, specifically the technical and political obstacles to the achievement of the AEC by 2015. The AEC is the domain of the ASEAN economic ministers. However, the obstacles to it are primarily political, whether in terms of customs reform, non-tariff barriers, trade in services, product standards, transportation, communications, or information technology. Australia must focus on how to move into this process with ASEAN. At this stage, the movement of AEC is hampered by domestic and international political considerations. Australian's inputs in the South China Sea issues, the development of AEC and regional development will help Australia to re-connect with ASEAN.

Dr Nattavud Pimpa is a Senior Lecturer in international business at the School of Management, RMIT University.

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