Can Australia overcome ASEAN divide to promote a common Indo-Pacific security vision?

Australia has succeeded in sending a strong message to both ASEAN and China. To ASEAN, Canberra has communicated its commitment both in economic and security terms. The keyword will be a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is in line with the overall security vision of the West. 

Collins Chong Yew Keat Mar 13, 2024
Representational Photo

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese issued an emphatic commitment to Southeast Asia at the Australia-ASEAN Summit. This sends the strongest intent yet of Australia and the West in defending the rules-based order and to send a direct message to Beijing that the Southeast Asian region still is not China’s to lose.

The governing center-left Labor party has long aimed to forge closer ties with the region, recognising Australia’s geographical reality. Australia in return is viewed overwhelmingly through the lenses of its close ties with the Western pact, including with the UK and the US with AUKUS being the main point of contention.

The region remains critical for Australia’s security and economic future, and Australia provides the Western bastion and assurances of security support to the region apart from existing regional Western allies including the Philippines.

As Prime Minister Albanese stated, more than any other part of the world, Southeast Asia is where Australia’s destiny lies. It remains the epicenter of overall Indo-Pacific strategy and stability, being the linking point of the East and West.

Regional divide vis-a-vis Beijing

As the region continues to struggle in navigating the deeper power conflict between Beijing and the West and the inherent security dilemma, it will need to strengthen the fallback option of a reliable Western security support system in a manner that is in line with the region’s traditional non-aligned status without upsetting Beijing.

This dilemma has been difficult with the regional divide in responding to Beijing’s increasing assertiveness and coercion, and any overtures will invite greater bellicosity. Australia is seen as a softer overture and source of assurance for the region, without inviting obvious repercussions of economic and diplomatic retaliations as compared to Washington.

However, as Beijing ramps up its bellicose actions in the sea, the legitimacy of the quest to solicit greater alignments with the West and the rules-based order will be naturally higher. However, the region missed the window of opportunity that has been opened by Canberra in reinforcing the region’s desire to work deeper in upholding the rules and law of the sea and in sending a defiant tone to China.

The Southeast Asian region remains critical to Canberra, especially in the domains of energy, trade, economic, supply chain and minerals security and resilience. The essence of assurances and strategic overviews for these sectors and their future derivation of returns lie in the sanctity of peace, stability and adherence to the international and freedom of navigation, in which Beijing is undermining now.

Hence, the hard power focus on upholding the rules-based order and the focus on security issues remain inevitable, and the quest to preserve this must not be seen as forcing one party to choose side over another.

The region’s divided responses and affiliations remain the biggest obstacle to the West’s consolidated approach. It will have to rely on bilateral and direct targeting with surgical approaches with specific interest targets. The deepening of strategic military and economic ties with Manila and Hanoi remains a case in point.

Indonesia, along with Malaysia, are among Australia’s allies in the region has raised concerns that Canberra’s investing tens of billions of dollars in nuclear submarines and the AUKUS pact are creating a new wave of arms races and heightening the security dilemma facing the region. Both Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur remain strategically non-aligned but maintain close economic ties with Beijing, which further strengthened Beijing’s cards in deploying both the economic and hard power cards in the region. 

This has hampered Canberra and Washington’s efficacy and strategy in severing this Chinese economic dependence in return for a more appealing offer in economic and trade overture. The region remains hopeful for a stabilising and deterring presence of the West’s hard power assurances as insurance against Beijing’s future behaviours, but it hopes for a greater and less strings-attached model to the West’s economic enticement as well. This strategy remains increasingly unrealistic.

Canberra's imperatives vis-a-vis ASEAN

The recent aggressive actions by the Chinese Coast Guard in the vicinity of the Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands provide the impetus for Canberra to project the urgency of the need to secure maritime rights and for the region to do more to uphold this principle.

The Melbourne Declaration which has been endorsed by Australia and the 10 ASEAN states,  called for peaceful resolution of the South China Sea disputes through legal and diplomatic processes in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Australia and the Philippines have pushed for the Declaration to include a reference to cite the 2016 arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s claims. This remains a far-fetched dream, as the final document contains neither the ruling nor refers to China by name.

This has been a consistent trap of fear for ASEAN in upsetting the apple cart,  a reflection of its internal divide and a clear portrayal that even those with competing claims in the South China Sea are unwilling to jeopardize their fruitful economic relations with China.

Australia’s desire to seek a stronger ASEAN response has been thwarted by the ingrained dogma of ASEAN, but it is a price or effort that Canberra is willing to pay as long as ASEAN remains committed to the larger goal. The region is of geographical importance to Australia in acting as a buffer to China to its north and as a connecting pathway to trade with East Asia.

Australia has succeeded in sending a strong message to both ASEAN and China. To ASEAN, Canberra has communicated its commitment both in economic and security terms. The keyword will be a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is in line with the overall security vision of the West. 

The most significant intent and message was the $1.3 billion fund to boost trade and investment in Southeast Asia, particularly in support of the region’s clean energy transition and infrastructure development. This comes on top of additional funding for maritime security (A$64 million) and infrastructure (A$140 million), as well as a string of smaller commitments, including the establishment of an ASEAN-Australia Centre in Canberra and an expansion of Australia’s scholarship program for ASEAN nationals.

This will augur well for closer bonds and building trust and confidence in the region for the Australians, cementing Canberra’s soft power and consolidating the efficacy of a comprehensive security spectrum.

Forging a trust-based relationship

The Albanese government has also strategically enhanced the ease of business visas for Southeast Asians. For long Canberra’s ties with the region have been defined by a considerable gap between the rhetoric of leaders from both sides and the persistent policy and security trap that is molded by the different cultures, backgrounds, political and belief systems of both parties.

Australia remains the most important permanent physical geographical symbol of the West in the Indo-Pacific and this region, and the reality requires the country to foster long-term, stabilising, and beneficial ties with the region based on a new model of trust-based relationship that is different from the region’s ties with Beijing.

The summit created a platform for closing mutual perception gaps. The challenge moving forward is the momentum and intent to maintain this drive in light of the anticipated pressures and retaliatory moves by Beijing. The region and ASEAN cannot afford to bypass the most critical assurance of peace and stability in the region and the Indo-Pacific, which is the reassuring presence of Washington and its allies like Australia in upholding the rules-based order. 

(The author is a Kuala Lumpur-based strategic and security analyst. Views are personal. He can be contacted at

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