Australia should seek membership/partnership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
We should aim for a form of ASEAN membership/partnership by 2024, the 50th anniversary of Australia becoming the first ASEAN dialogue nation. New Zealand should join any Australian effort to join ASEAN. A joint Australia – New Zealand effort will be mutually reinforcing.
The ASEAN–Australia summit in Sydney in March is the launch point for a discussion of what much closer cooperation could mean for the future of the ASEAN Community. Alternative routes to membership could be used:
1. Half-in status by 2024, with Australia and New Zealand becoming ASEAN observers. This embraces the existing ASEAN system.
Or, what I’ve come to see as the better course:
2. The creation of a new form of ASEAN membership—embracing Australia and New Zealand as ASEAN Community partners. This avoids the geographical veto (not part of Southeast Asia) while acknowledging the value Australia and New Zealand could bring to ASEAN. As ASEAN Community partners, Australia (and New Zealand) would have full ASEAN rights and obligations.
As the geostrategic and geo-economic pressures build in Asia, ASEAN, as a middle-power grouping, needs the extra middle-power heft offered by Australia and New Zealand. Australia’s ASEAN membership wouldn’t affect our alliance with the US, any more than formal alliances with the US have restricted the ASEAN roles of Thailand or the Philippines. Certainly, the quasi-alliance Singapore has created with America hasn’t altered Singapore’s ASEAN commitment. Australia’s alliance would be an asset, not a hindrance, just as the US alliance was no barrier to Australia signing ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.
A Twitter straw poll on whether Australia should join ASEAN got a Yes majority in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and The Philippines. The No majorities were in Australia and Indonesia. Australia’s Asian future will be shaped by ASEAN’s success or failure. We have fundamental interests in ASEAN. If the ASEAN Community project is a success—in its social, political and strategic dimensions—Australia will want to be deeply involved in that vibrant community. Equally, Australia’s interests would be deeply compromised if ASEAN stalls or fails. Australia knows the Southeast Asia it wants to live with. Joining ASEAN is the best way to give full expression to our future in Southeast Asia and in Asia more broadly.