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A Public Forum on “ASEAN-Australia Relations in Asia’s Transformation”


A Public Forum on “ASEAN-Australia Relations in Asia’s Transformation”

Thursday, 17th July 2014 at 8.30 - 11.30 a.m.

The Chumbhot-Pantip Conference Room, 4th Floor Prajadhipok-Rambhaibarni Building,
Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.




08.30 – 09.00 a.m.                 Registration and Coffee

09.00 – 09.20 a.m.                 Welcome Remarks

                                                Prof. Dr. Supachai Yavaprabhas
                                                Dean, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

                                                Opening Remarks

                                                Mr. James Wise
                                                Australian Ambassador to Thailand

 09.20 – 10.50 a.m.                 Speakers:

                                                Dr. John Blaxland
                                                Senior Fellow, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre
                                                The Australian National University

                                                Mr. Umesh N. Pandey
                                                Editor – Asia Focus
                                                The Bangkok Post

                                                Ms. Gwen Robinson
                                                Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand
                                                Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University


                                                Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn
                                                Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand
                                                Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University


                                                Assoc. Prof. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak
                                                Director of ISIS Thailand
                                                Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

10.50 – 11.30 a.m.                  Open Forum


Videos: ASEAN-Australia Relations in Asia’s Transformation

ASEAN-Australia Relations in Asia’s Transformation 1/3:

ASEAN-Australia Relations in Asia’s Transformation 2/3:

ASEAN-Australia Relations in Asia’s Transformation 3/3:


If you wish more detailed information concerning this seminar please click



Welcome Remarks: H.E. Mr. James Wise, Australian Ambassador to Thailand

Australia-ASEAN relations formally began after a meeting in Canberra in 1974 between officials from Australia and the then-five ASEAN countries who decided that they should pursue some shared regional objectives. From this has emerged a deep and complex relationship with political and security cooperation, economic dynamism and people-to-people ties.

This was important for both ASEAN and Australia. For ASEAN, Australia was its first Dialogue Partner, so it was a significant moment in its early years. For Australia, this partnership signalled a shift in the way that Australians thought about their place in the world and about how geography would shape their destiny. In that context Australia began to see the countries and peoples of Southeast Asia as neighbours, and recognised ASEAN as a logical partner to build a stable and favourable regional environment.

In 1974, Australia’s trade with ASEAN was less than $1 billion. Last year it was over $90 billion, 20% of which was with Thailand. Australia’s political, security and economic ties with ASEAN have grown quickly. People-to-people links have strengthened through tourism, education and business linkages. Australia and ASEAN are trying to fulfil a shared aspiration for regional integration and a stable regional architecture.

Ambassador Wise explained that Australia is a willing and able partner for ASEAN as it tries to bring its Community dream into reality. It is also working with ASEAN for broader regional cooperation, in particular through the East Asia Summit. The EAS has the right mandate and membership with ASEAN as its centre to engage the region to deal with strategic issues.


Moderator: Prof. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Australia has had to be conscious of its geography. It has close cultural and historical ties to Britain and the United States, and is in a ‘limbo’ between the Pacific and Asia. Yet, it is a rising middle power, it has significant resources and is emerging as a constructive player in the region. ASEAN is also being recognised as for its achievements, but we should not shy away from its challenges. There are domestic challenges in Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, and concerns about Indonesian and Myanmar elections. Domestic politics is a problem for ASEAN unity going forward. Security challenges in the South China Sea seems to dividing the maritime and mainland countries between China and the United States.


Dr. John Blaxland:

Dr. Blaxland began by emphasising Australia’s physical proximity to Southeast Asia, and how important the region is not only to the Indo-Pacific but also to Australia. For a long time, Australians saw this proximity as a threat and sought security from Asia. However, in the post-WWII period, Australian foreign policy found independence from Great Britain, and as it matured it increasingly sought to engage Asia.

This started to shift the way that Australians thought about the region. Australia started developing security with Asia instead of fearing it. This paradigm shift emerged after closer institutional and people-to-people linkages were established. Bilateral agreements such as with Thailand in 1952, multilateral agreements with SEATO in 1954, defence cooperation and exercises, and dialogue partnership signed with ASEAN in 1974 have laid the groundwork for Australia’s enduring engagement in Asia.

Cultural, linguistic, ethnographic, religious, historical, constitutional, legal, geographic and demographic diversity in ASEAN has made unity difficult. Yet, there remain compelling reasons for them to stick together, which in the current regional environment are growing stronger.

It is clear why Australia sees ASEAN as such an important dialogue partner in 2014. Southeast Asia is both the geographical and political fulcrum of the region. There is plenty to criticise about ASEAN but it remains a remarkably pivotal organisation. The region’s institutions, forums and security arrangements may have differing themes and goals, but they all have ASEAN at the centre. APEC, the ARF and the East Asia Forum have provided opportunities for Australia to play a constructive role in the region, mediate discussions between the powers, engage in confidence building military and HADR activities, and build up a network of regional counterparts. While it may seem slow, cumulative, incremental progress made is significant.

Why is engagement important for Australia? Australia’s economic, political and security stability overwhelmingly relies on ASEAN being stable. Dr. Blaxland explained that most of our trade is with ASEAN or goes through ASEAN. Aggregated trade with ASEAN makes it Australia’s 3rd largest trading partner; the importance of this is not lost on Australian policy makers. The advent of the ASEAN Economic Community, the RCEP and possibly the TPP, along with the existing ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, could further deepen economic ties.

Underlying these trade factors is the return of traditional security concerns. The South China Sea is clearly the region’s major flashpoint is a significant conundrum for Southeast Asia. China is pushing the boundaries in the South China Sea by declaring territory, using water cannons against fishing vessels and sending naval vessels on provocative routes through the region. They are deliberately operating just below the threshold for a war in order to force the hand of the United States. In terms of the endurance, utility and relevance of ASEAN, it is important that this matter is resolved peacefully, sooner rather than later. 

Preah Vihar is another strategic concern. While tension has been eased in the immediate term, it is not completely settled. This issue is not just about the temple and world heritage site, but it also has consequences for access to significant oil and gas reserves in the Gulf of Thailand. Thailand and Cambodia must creatively engage to find a solution to this issue.

Furthermore, the ongoing conflict in Thailand’s Deep South also requires a regional solution. There is a profound complexity and historical animosity which stretches back over 100 years. This a festering sore that is embarrassing to Thailand and ASEAN. People must reflect dispassionately with a historical background to reflect on what is happening and try to find a way ahead. If resolving this issue is in Thailand’s interests, then it also ASEAN’s interests and therefore also Australia’s.

ASEAN is also facing significant internal challenges. The election in Indonesia is shaping as a barometer for democracy in Southeast Asia. Myanmar is making a promising transition towards democracy, but is still tested by issues of internal disintegration and treatment of minorities.

Dr. Blaxland explained that the while the AEC is quite an exciting economic prospect, its implications for the security sphere have not yet been fully thought out. Economic prosperity is impossible without security; when there are doubts about security, you can’t have prosperity. For the AEC to be fully effective, these domestic and regional security issues must be resolved, and Thailand has a major role to play in resolving them. Thailand has a very proud tradition of statecraft, defending its interests and balancing major powers. ASEAN needs Thailand to utilise these skills and incorporate ASEAN into its foreign relations in order to shape a stable and prosperous region that will last well into the future.


Mr. Umesh N. Pandey

Mr. Umesh N. Pandey discussed a number of observations on the trade side of the ASEAN-Australia relationship made during his recent 10 day to Australia where he met a number of Australian business leaders and government officials.

ASEAN and Asia have become the key markets for Australia, accounting for a very large proportion of Australia’s international trade. In terms of exports, bulk of this trade comes from agriculture and resources. Businesses Mr. Pandey spoke to anticipate that Asia’s middle class will swell to 3.2 billion people in the next 15 years, so it is essential for Australian companies to start laying their foundations in Asia now in order to capitalise on that growth. Identifying this need, the Victorian state government has started an initiative to help facilitate Australian businesses looking to export to Asia with negotiation, R&D and infrastructure assistance.

Improving cultural awareness of ASEAN has also emerged as a priority for the Australian government. Every year international students contribute about $3 billion to the Australian education system, a large number of whom come from Asia. However, this has often been a one-way exchange, with relatively very few Australian students completing degrees in Asia. The government’s ‘New Colombo Plan’ plans to turn this around; it provides scholarships to Australian students to study for a semester in the region.  It is aimed at deepening education and business links, as well as contributing to cultural exchanges between Australia, ASEAN and the region.

While he heard of many positives in ASEAN-Australian relations, Mr. Pandey also observed a number of negatives. In particular, he noted that there appears to be a reluctance for Australian companies to move into Asia, and very few have made investments in ASEAN. He attributes this to a lack of foresight by the top management of Australian companies as well as a poor understanding of the opportunities for growth in ASEAN.


Ms. Gwen Robinson

The perception from Ms. Robinson is that in recent years the success of Australia’s engagement with ASEAN has been mixed. While visits and policies from political leaders have often touted increases in trade and business links, these have not always translated into actual policies. The announcement of cuts to future aid spending also seem incredibly short sighted.

In recent decades, Australian governments have placed more emphasis on developing links with countries in Northeast Asia, first with Japan in the 1970s and more recently China. As a result, many opportunities for Australia to capitalise on ASEAN’s growth have been missed. Since 2008 Australia’s trade with countries in Southeast Asia has experienced steady growth, rising at an average of just under 3% per year. However, in the same period Australia’s two-way trade with Northeast Asia and India has boomed, with Chinese trade more than doubling and South Korea, Japan and India logging average yearly gains of about 7-8%. Ms. Robinson noted that issues such as differing investment and business laws, political instability, potentially corrupt business practises or misinformation about doing business in the region may deter have deterred Australian businesses from investing in Southeast Asia, but Australian businesses and the government have also been more focussed on Northeast Asian countries owing to the perception that business there is safe, simple and lucrative.

For ASEAN-Australian relations to reach their full potential, this perception must change. The advent of the ASEAN Community and an integrated economic bloc does raise some hopeful signs, but more can be done. Putting more resources into Australian Chambers of Commerce and establishing bilateral institutes (similar to the Australian-Thailand Institute) throughout the region may help to strengthen cultural and economic ties, and open up opportunities Australian businesses to capitalise on the growing region.


Mr. Kavi Chongkittavorn

Mr. Chongkittavorn discussed three key areas of Australia-ASEAN relations: Connectivity, regional security architecture and Australia-ASEAN relations amid the rise of China.

While a strong relationship has been built, he questioned whether the connections between Australian and ASEAN governments, businesses and people are substantial enough given the 40 years of dialogue relations. Many of the achievements touted as evidence of Australia’s close engagement with ASEAN and Asia, such as the establishment of APEC, asylum of Vietnamese refugees and intervention in East Timor, happened decades ago. Australia-ASEAN relations reached their peak during the Hawke-Keating years. Recent governments have not been able to match this kind of engagement. ASEAN-Australia connectivity – people-to-people, business, government and cultural links – must strengthen.

Security architecture: Australia has certainly contributed to the regional security architecture since 1952. However now there is a perception that Australia is very doubtful about the utility and sustainability of ASEAN-led forums in the Asia-Pacific. For example, in the East Asia Summit, Australia has tended to side with the United States and Japan instead of the ASEAN countries on most issues. Mr. Chongkittavorn believes this ought to switch. There remains a prevailing perception that Australia is a “Deputy Sherriff” and that its foreign policy is shaped by the United States. This must also change. Australia can play a much more constructive and neutral role in the region if its foreign policy appears less tied the United States. An annual ASEAN+1 summit with Australia would be a way that Australia can tailor a strategy with ASEAN which is independent from the United States and ultimately more beneficial in the long-term.

Australia-ASEAN collaboration amid the rise of China: Thailand and the Philippines, as well as South Korea and Japan must balance their formal alliances with the United States and its growing strong economic links with China. These countries should look towards Australia to learn how to respond to the rise of China. Australia has an independent policy towards China and does not just follow the US on this issue. The recent increase in ASEAN unity on the South China Sea has been a positive development, and Thailand has played an important role in this as the country coordinator for ASEAN-China relations.

Finally, Mr. Chongkittavorn believes that Australian’s lack of knowledge about ASEAN has very much to do with the media. Sensationalist stories about the coup in Thailand and refugees in Indonesia come at the expense of more substantive stories about developments in ASEAN as a region. Without a greater awareness of ASEAN in Australia, and a focus on bilateral issues, government efforts such as the New Colombo Plan, the East Asia Summit or increased business linkages will fail. More media interest about ASEAN must be generated. 


Question and Answer

When John Howard was Prime Minister, Australia was cast in the role of ‘Deputy Sherriff’. In the Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd years an “Australia in Asia Pacific Century” was seen as more outwardly regional. What can we expect going forward?

Ambassador Wise: Whether it is the Coalition or Labor, the government to government level relations between Australia and ASEAN are very substantial. The New Colombo Plan does not point to a government which is inward looking or ignoring our commitment to Asia.

But picking up on the points that Gwen and others have made, we definitely need to do more to encourage Australian businesses to invest in ASEAN. However, there are some reasons for the seemingly low investment into ASEAN; many of Australia’s largest companies are resource-based, so they are only able to operate in countries with primary resources. Many companies feel it is easier to invest in countries that look like a lot like Australia, which have similar regulatory and operating environments. Also, many companies have not invested overseas because business in Australia has been so lucrative. Australia has not had a recession for 23 years which may have made them less adventurous.

Dr. Blaxland: John Howard did not announce himself as a “Deputy Sherriff,” but it was unfortunately a characterisation which stuck. He acted in a way which he perceived as being in Australia’s best interests. While many people disagreed with him, his calculus on the issues was reasonably coherent. With regards to AusAID, it is easy to characterise the spending cuts as a loss, but in reality it was only a cut to projected expenditure, not actual projects. Australia’s aid spending has increased significantly in recent years, but now it will just plateau. The perception is that aid spending has been bouncing up and down, but in reality it has taken a very steady path.


How does Australia see itself in the region? There are examples of Australia trying to lead the region, such as with the ill-fated Asia-Pacific Community, as well as participating within the existing architecture. Looking ahead, how does Australia see ASEAN and what kind of leadership could we see coming out Canberra?

Dr. Blaxland: I think that Australia is distracted by the bilateral concerns, particularly the Indonesian relationship. For Australia, managing that relationship is paramount for demographic and geostrategic circumstances. Added to that has been 3-4 years of relatively toxic Australian politics which have distracted politicians from looking beyond their next sound bite. In this context, ASEAN simply has not received the attention in Australia than it should have. To be fair, I am impressed with Julie Bishop and her attempts to grapple with the issues, so perhaps an improvement is on the horizon.


This month Australia and Japan signalled their very close relationship, while the Japanese Constitutional reinterpretation may further inflame tensions with China. Does this hamper Australia’s ability to play an active but neutral role in the South China Sea dispute?

Dr. Blaxland: Australian academic Hugh White is very hard on the link between economics and security. He says that Australia should be afraid of being seen to be too close to Japan as trade with China will suffer. This is an argument that I don’t buy into. China doesn’t trade with Australia because they like us, they trade with us because we have a lot of what they want: resources.  

Furthermore, while China can only use trade as an aggressive foreign policy tool a few times before there are severe knock-on consequences that will affect its own development. For example, after China banned rare earth exports in 2010, Japan started looking for alternative sources.  China knows that it can only play this kind of card once or twice, but there are negative knock on terms with using it. So with that in mind, Australia and China will keep the security and economic equations separate.


What effect will the Indonesian election have on ASEAN as well as ASEAN-Australian relations?

Prof. Dr. Thitinan: Indonesia has always been and always will be the locomotive of ASEAN. In the last 10 years it has led ASEAN, but now what can we expect from it? Marty Natalegawa and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have done an excellent job on the regional front, despite criticisms domestically. Now Indonesia is dealing with a contentious election. The big question is, will the loser concede? Indonesia is the leading democracy in the region, if its democracy becomes problematic it is not good for the momentum of democratic consolidation in ASEAN.

Mr. Chongkittavorn: Before 1998 Indonesia was the lowest common denominator in ASEAN. Nothing could move forward without it and thus it held the regional organisation back. But since then it has played a leading role in drafting the ASEAN Charter, and designing the parameters for regional political and security cooperation. Despite the ambiguities and uncertainties, I think that democracy will prevail. Hopefully Prabowo will stand down and Indonesia can announce itself as a mature democracy. If this can happen, it will be a big boost for democracy in ASEAN.

Ms. Robinson: We still can’t confirm which way it will go until after July 22, and there are two entirely different paths that Indonesia may go down. But whichever way Indonesia goes, this provides an opportunity for Australia to recalibrate its relationship with Indonesia. It is an opportunity for a new era with new thinking, not only for Indonesia but also Australia and ASEAN.

Dr. Blaxland: Prabowo’s comments that he will wind back democracy are deeply disconcerting and would have implications for Indonesia’s relationship with Australia and for ASEAN. 

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