Navigating a path through U.S.-China competition and forging constructive ties with its Southeast Asian neighbours are among Australia’s most pressing foreign policy priorities. And yet, misaligned expectations have complicated the potential for a broad-based consensus needed to sustain Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy in the region. This is often driven in both directions by a failure to understand, or simply the urge to gloss over, fundamental differences in identities, temperaments, priorities, and alignments between Australia and its Southeast Asian counterparts. Such differences will require concerted efforts to manage.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Canberra should prioritise an outward-looking and ambitious Indo-Pacific strategy rather than risk withdrawing into a pessimistic and defensive regional posture. Australia’s strategic circumstances, while critical, are also dynamic. They create an opportunity to rethink, reorder, and step-up regional diplomacy. Australia will have to re-engage the middle powers of Southeast Asia on their own terms, as well as look for ways to bridge strategic priorities in its two closest geographic theatres.