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Does Australia’s support for Asean centrality mean it is finally breaking ranks with the US?

2022-08-02 10:39:54       source:South China Morning Post

July 14, 2022

“You can trust the Americans to do the right thing – after they have tried all the wrong things” – attributed to Winston Churchill.


One could substitute “the Americans” with “the Australians” in Churchill’s aphorism. Australia has long followed America’s lead in its policy towards Southeast Asia and Asean. That policy has basically been to use them in its contest with China for regional domination.


Both Canberra and Washington have consistently voiced their support for Asean centrality, while their actions have undermined it. But now there is a glimmer of hope that at least Australian policy towards Southeast Asia may change for the better.


Despite their rhetoric, US and Australian strategic machinations have ignored Asean’s aspirations to centrality in regional security affairs.


Indeed, the US-led revival of the Quad – a strategic “dialogue” that sponsors cooperative military projects between the US, Australia, India and Japan – is a testament to their perception that Asean has been ineffective in dealing with critical regional security issues like the South China Sea and Myanmar.


Aukus – the agreement between Australia, the UK and the US to supply Australia with nuclear submarine and maritime drone technology, as well as allow more basing for US troops and assets – also bypassed and unsettled Asean countries.


These arrangements only further the US and Australian military-first approach to the region. But the region does not welcome outside-initiated strategic arrangements or power projections. Southeast Asian nations are asking China and the US to decrease their belligerent power projections.


There had been some cause for hope that the US would change its approach to Southeast Asia and that Australia would follow suit. US President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan publicly advocated “competitive coexistence” with China in 2019.


Almost coincident with Campbell’s appointment in January 2021, he co- wrote an article in Foreign Affairs criticising the policies of the Donald Trump administration and advocating “reversing the situation with diplomatic finesse, commercial innovation, and institutional creativity, serious re-engagement; and [an] end to shaking down allies”.


But, apparently, he and his colleagues changed their minds – or had them changed for them. Biden’s China policy has not only continued that of Trump but even surpassed its hypocrisy, condescension, confrontation and militarism. Indeed, US diplomacy has lagged far behind its military signalling.


Many Southeast Asian countries are worried that this means a continuation of the cycle of US-China tit-for-tat military action and reaction that increase the possibility of conflict and collateral damage for the region.


They also fear the US will force Southeast Asian states to choose between supporting America or China. Moreover, they worry the US will create a political and military mess and then pull out, as it did from Vietnam – leaving its “allies and partners” to deal with what it leaves behind – including an angry and vengeful China.


Under prime minister Scott Morrison, Australia aided and abetted the US approach to the region. But this may be changing. On July 6, new Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong gave a pivotal speech at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies in Singapore.


When relevant excerpts are strung together, they give an impression of a new policy towards Southeast Asia and Asean in the making. She declared that, from here on, Australia will engage Asean on its own merits and not through a “China prism”.


“All countries that seek to work with the region have a responsibility to engage constructively with and through Asean – including major powers…,” she said. “Asean partners can count on Australia to understand and respect the interests of the countries of Southeast Asia. Australia will find its security in Asia, not from Asia.”


These words are music to Asean leaders’ ears. But they will want to see the words put into deeds and in particular how Australia balances this “enlightened” view with that of the US, which does indeed view its relations with Asean countries and Asean itself through the “China prism”.


Wong’s speech contained some hints of that attempt to balance between the desires of Asean countries and the US. She claimed that Australia sees the Quad as working alongside Asean to strengthen its shared interests with the countries of Southeast Asia: “That’s why my Prime Minister [Anthony Albanese] and I travelled to Tokyo to the Quad leaders meeting right after our election.”


However, I doubt Asean leaders think their trip was primarily motivated by a desire to benefit Asean. This is disingenuous to say the least. Wong also claimed Australia would be “guided by the principles of the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific [in building] the regional order we seek”. But that outlook is “inclusive”, meaning that it wants to include China, while the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy excludes China.


She also said “Australia has been on the right side of history in Southeast Asia”. This ignores its kinetic support for the US political and military debacle in Vietnam.


There are some signs of recognition from within the US foreign policy establishment that its current approach to Southeast Asia is failing to win support and needs to change. Indeed, some say the Biden administration’s China policy is “bipolar”. At the least, this means there is some dissent about the militarist approach to the region.


Perhaps for once the US will follow Australia’s lead – or at least learn from it. It does seem that Australia has chosen to differentiate its Southeast Asia policy from that of the “sheriff”. If Wong’s rhetoric is implemented – and is successful in improving Australia-Southeast Asia relations, maybe – just maybe – the US might follow.


Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.