The heads of government of the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will convene in Sydney on 17–18 March 2018 at the invitation of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit. This will be the sixth ASEAN-Australia heads-of-government summit since 1977, but the first to be held in Australia. The Summit of heads of government will be the centrepiece of a series of meetings in the week of 12–18 March which will highlight the breadth and significance of the ASEAN relationship. This paper provides concise background to and context for the Special Summit.
The paper is in three parts. The paper first outlines ASEAN’s formation in 1967 during the Cold War by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand and the evolution of ASEAN’s distinctive approach to cooperation, which emphasises consensus in decision-making and respect for national sovereignty. After attaining a high profile in the 1980s during the conflict over Cambodia, ASEAN in the
post-Cold War era from 1989 moved to extend its cooperation in three major ways. It expanded its membership to ten between 1995 and 1999 by including Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia (Brunei had joined in 1984). ASEAN then moved to deepen cooperation by initiating proposals for an ASEAN Community in the political and security, economic and socio-cultural spheres. The ASEAN Community was inaugurated in 2015, but is an ongoing project requiring much further development. ASEAN simultaneously has sought to enhance regional security by sponsoring dialogue forums involving the major powers, particularly through the ASEAN Regional Forum (from 1994) and the East Asia Summit (2005).
The paper secondly outlines the development of ASEAN-Australia relations since Australia became the Association’s first dialogue partner in 1974. The paper reviews progress in relations in the past five years and then identifies and discusses six issues in Australia’s recent relations with ASEAN and ASEAN members:
- the significance of Australia’s relations with the ASEAN economies and the prospects for further development as the economies grow and ASEAN’s cooperation plans are pursued
- the continuing challenge of major power competition in Southeast Asia, the disputes over the South China Sea and ASEAN’s long-term efforts to seek agreement with China on a ‘code of conduct’ that can moderate tensions and improve interactions among the claimant parties
- the problem of Islamist terrorism, which was highlighted in 2017 by the five-month conflict in the Philippine city of Marawi (which included Australian assistance to the Armed Forces of the Philippines)
- the exacerbation of conflict in Rakhine State in Myanmar in August 2017 which saw the departure of over 650,000 Rohingya people to Bangladesh in a political and humanitarian crisis which is yet to be resolved
- issues of political order in Southeast Asia which have recently included concerns in Australia about restrictions on political expression and activity in Cambodia and
- the question of the future of Australia’s institutional relations with ASEAN, including debate about the long-term potential for and feasibility of Australian membership of ASEAN.
Thirdly, the paper outlines the program for the Special Summit, which will include a varied series of events during ‘ASEAN-Australia Week’ from 12 to 18 March, a Business Summit, a Counter-Terrorism Summit of senior officials, a gathering of experts on cybersecurity, and the Leaders Summit itself. The Special Summit has been supported strongly by both the Government and the Opposition and it will direct additional attention to the scale and significance of the ASEAN-Australia relationship. The paper concludes by outlining the factors which are likely to be particularly important for the future evolution of ASEAN-Australia relations.