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Is Australia’s future in ASEAN

What would its membership bring to ASEAN? What can ASEAN give to Australia? Is an Australian entry into ASEAN on the horizon? 

Editorial

Indonesian President Joko Widodo welcomed the idea of Australia joining ASEAN. Widodo told reporters at the ASEAN leaders summit in Sydney, “I think it’s a good idea”. He added, “our region will be better (for) stability, economic stability, and also political stability”. His comments came after an Australian think tank recommended Australia joined the bloc.

Australia would help counter Chinese aggression in the South China Sea

Australia has been a vocal upholder of international law in the South China Sea dispute. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop would not name China directly. But she spoke of the importance of a “rules-based order” at a press conference in February.

Australia has remained neutral in the dispute. It wanted to protect its economic relations with China. However, there are indicators that this relationship is souring. Australia may be more willing to challenge Chinese aggression. Having Australia in ASEAN would help efforts to secure a Code of Conduct in the dispute.

Deeper economic ties would benefit both parties

Australia currently has free trade agreements (FTAs) with Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. It is also in the process of negotiating an FTA with Indonesia. Under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, Australia will enjoy tariff-free trade with Vietnam and Brunei Darussalam.

Australia joining ASEAN would allow more ASEAN countries to access Australian markets. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines would enjoy tariff-free trade with Australia.

For Australia, it would give its businesses access to ASEAN’s growing middle class. It would put Australia in a strong position to export products to this expanding market.

Josh Frydenberg is Australia’s Minister for Environment and Energy. He has expressed an interest in exporting energy. He wants to plug Australian energy into the ASEAN grid. Joining the bloc might provide the means to achieve this.

Will Australia join ASEAN? 

Australia is not likely to join ASEAN in the near future. Although it might make economic sense, there will be opposition within Australia. If Australia joined the bloc, it would have to end its criticism of ASEAN nations’ human rights abuses. ASEAN operates on a non-interference principle. It was one of the six fundamental principles included in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Many human rights organisations in Australia would oppose Australia’s.

There could be resistance on ASEAN’s part as well. Australia’s addition could upset the leadership balances within the group. Widodo and Lee Hsien Loong appear open to the idea in public. But there could be internal resistance in their countries. Indonesia and Singapore have central roles in ASEAN. Australia could upset this balance.

ASEAN is slow at making decisions. Each issue requires consensus. It would require a lot of variables to align to reach a consensus on Australia’s admission.

Australia could become a different kind of member

Full membership will likely be out of Australia’s reach. But it could have a different kind of membership. An Australia-New Zealand-ASEAN FTA would give all parties economic benefits. This economic partnership would be a platform to deepen political ties.

The long-term objective may be establishing observer status. This is the same kind of status enjoyed by Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste. This would provide a united economic and security bloc. It would give ASEAN leverage over China in the South China Sea. It would also strengthen Australia’s national security with a strong set of allies to the north.

Both parties would reap benefits from this arrangement. It would also likely avoid resistance from within Australia and ASEAN.

This is still a long way off. For Australia to further align itself with ASEAN, it first needs to negotiate an FTA with the whole bloc. An economic foundation is key for further negotiations. Only then can the integration process pick up steam.