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Australia must demonstrate its resolve amid renewed push for engagement with ASEAN

23/07/2022 03:08 PM

By Voon Miaw Ping

KUALA LUMPUR, July 23 (Bernama) -- When Anthony Albanese-led Labor Party won the Australian federal election in late May, he emphasised on building stronger relations with ASEAN and the Southeast Asian region. 

The pledge was quickly translated into his high-level visit to Indonesia in early June after taking over the premiership, followed with trips by Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong to Vietnam and Malaysia three weeks later. Wong had also visited Singapore in early July. 

During her trip to Malaysia, Wong stressed that she will sharpen the focus of her department on Southeast Asia so Australia will be better equipped to engage with the region and seek new partnerships and arrangements that can contribute to the shared objectives.

Australia has long been a constructive partner to ASEAN and in this region. It became the ten-member grouping's first dialogue partner in 1974 and that relationship marked another historic milestone when they become Comprehensive Strategic Partners in Oct 2021.



Senior Fellow at Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia Thomas Daniel said that given the strategic importance of the region and role of ASEAN, it is no surprise that Australia will continue to prioritise its relationship with the regional organisation. 

“An ASEAN that remains free from major power influence, especially in its convening role of various multilateral forums, will be a benefit to middle powers like Australia,” he said.

However, amid the present fractured geopolitical landscape shaped by the US-China rivalry and Russia war on Ukraine, Australia must continue to demonstrate that it acts on its own in the region.

He said Australia’s role in the region will inevitably be scrutinised through the lense of major power competition.

“Certain parties may encourage the view that Australia doesn't act independently in this region, that it acts at the behest of the US. Now I don't think this is all that true. 

“And Australia has worked hard to dispel it. But they need to keep doing it because people will keep bringing it up,” he said. 

He also expects Australia's engagement with ASEAN will continue to be comprehensive and multisectoral.

Prof Tim Soutphommasane, Director of Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney, Australia in concurring with Thomas added that the new government’s renewed commitment would see Australia seeking to play a more significant role with countries in region and ASEAN as a whole.

“There is every sign that there will be stronger ties between Australian and the ASEAN countries, and a renewed push for Australian engagement with the region.

“And for those in Australia from Asian backgrounds observing these developments, there is much enthusiasm,” he said in an email reply to Bernama.



In fronting the complex geopolitical challenges and especially that of different concerns, Thomas said ASEAN and Australia should not let the differences to mar their well-developed relations.

He said in navigating the differences, some ASEAN members who prioritise non-aligned stand will need to balance their cooperation where Australia is part of the grouping like AUKUS and the Quad which have clear geostrategic and security aims.

“This needn’t be a stumbling block as both ASEAN and Australia are cognisant enough to know how to frame their cooperative efforts without directly taking a side in a dispute. Major powers who are in competition would do well to keep this in mind as well,” he said.

AUKUS, the acronym for the trilateral security pact between Australia, United Kingdom and United States, was unveiled in Sept last year to allow greater sharing of intelligence among the countries and essentially to help Australia replace its current aging Collins-class submarines with nuclear-powered submarines.

At the same time, the analyst said both Australia and ASEAN member states also need to be flexible enough to work minilateral, depending on the issue or challenge at hand when needed, as these can yield more immediate and effective results.



Malaysia and Australia have a long established relations that predate to Malaya’s independence in 1957, though there had been some minor setbacks along the way. They elevated the relationship to Comprehensive Strategic Partners in Jan 2021.

However, Thomas stressed that the relationship, while long and provident, could fall victim to the risks of assumed familiarity.

Hence he emphasised on the needs for constant and frank engagements between both countries in order for the relation to continue to expand stronger. 

“Policymakers in Malaysia and Australia need to understand the developing nuances in domestic drivers of foreign policy, and how each country chooses to navigate their respective relationships with major powers,” he said. 

Australia was Malaysia's 13th largest trading partner in 2021 with total trade amounting to RM52.28 billion (US$12.43 billion), an increase of 28.7 percent, compared to the recorded value in 2020.

Besides bilateral relation, both countries also work closely on other regional and international platforms, including in ASEAN-Australia CSP, East Asia Summit, the United Nation, the Commonwealth, and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

Both countries, together with Singapore, New Zealand and United Kingdom also make up of the Five Power Defence Arrangements, a multilateral defence cooperation.

In economy and trade, Australia and Malaysia are also involved in the Malaysia-Australia Free Trade Agreemnet (MAFTA), ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA), Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).



Appointment of Wong - the first overseas and Asian-born Australian foreign minister, was regarded by observers as someone that will be able to inject fresh perspectives and bring the ASEAN-Australia relations to greater heights.

Having born and spent her early years in the state of Sabah in Malaysia before migrating to Australia, she is also viewed to have strong understanding of the dynamics of the region and the advantage of making this relation work.

Prof Soutphommasane said: “Penny Wong has made a confident and assured start as Australia’s Foreign Minister, and is sending strong signals about her desire to strengthen Australia’s ties with the region.

“As someone born in Malaysia, and an Asian-Australian, Senator Wong brings a new sensibility to Australia’s engagement with Asia”.

“We are seeing in Senator Wong how an Australian perspective can itself be one shaped by Asia.  

“That has the potential to be quite profound for how Australia begins to rethink and rediscover its relationship with the region,” he added.


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