Opinion & Analysis

ASEAN & Australia : 50 years

The leaders of ASEAN and Australia meet in Melbourne this week to mark 50 years of dialogue partnership. In a new study, a team of ASEAN-Australia scholars argue increased great power competition in the region make Australian investments in ASEAN’s success more important than ever.

The 50th anniversary of partnership between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Australia is a major milestone. Australia’s early investment in ASEAN’s success – based on political and diplomatic engagement that signalled increasing confidence with Australia’s own place in the world – provides the foundation for the continued expansion of bilateral and multilateral ties across Southeast Asia.

ASEAN’s track record of stabilising the region is based on its ability to develop new models for diplomatic and political cooperation, while building frameworks for shared economic development that have contributed to increasing prosperity for many of the region’s 670 million people.

ASEAN has also increased its own strategic weight, with unparalleled convening and normative power in the Indo-Pacific, while grappling with an increasingly complex set of internal priorities and external demands. The reality for Australia is that its relative importance to ASEAN has shifted over the decades, even as Australia has gone from rhetorical support in the early days of ASEAN’s establishment to active and intensive engagement today.

ASEAN’s members also pursue their own active foreign policy and economic development priorities. ASEAN convenes discussions, including with external partners like Australia, that allow for deep reflection, considered debate, and even for significant disagreement.

The foresight of the Australian government in 1974 to establish a formal diplomatic relationship with the regional grouping will receive a lot of attention this week during the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit. In 2024, especially in a context of intensifying great power competition, Australian investments in ASEAN’s success and coherence look more important than ever.

From our perspective, the task ahead is to build on these long-term connections.

We should focus on new themes, such as hastening the energy transition and digital integration, and consider new infrastructure to support the expansion of business, educational and people-to-people links. For example, in our report, “Comprehensive Strategic Partners: ASEAN and Australia after the first 50 years”, we propose a future-focused, analytically minded and commercially oriented ASEAN-Australia Centre, drawing strength from existing institutions and proven models of cooperation. We also argue that more can be done to ensure that the next generation of ASEAN-Australia leaders are well-supported to build on these fifty years of ties.

While detractors will continue to find fault with ASEAN’s approaches to some issues, we argue that its models of inclusive diplomacy need to be understood carefully on their own terms and in historical perspective. From an ASEAN perspective, Australia has always done best when its leaders – from government, universities, the corporate sector, civil society and elsewhere – are empowered to build long-lasting relationships with their Southeast Asian counterparts.

Early years, 1967–1974

 The formation of ASEAN was a response to the strategic conditions of the Cold War, drawing together leaders and officials from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand. At the time, these five countries were seeking a model to work together more effectively and limit the prospect of conflict within the region.

War in Indochina, as well as the local and regional tensions unleashed by decolonisation, meant that many doubted the long-term viability of the nascent organisation. Previous efforts to bring together different configurations of Asian nations had struggled. One long-term Southeast Asian commentator has told us how, in the early years, he was a “critic”, but he admits that it has gone better than expected and that ASEAN has “actually achieved so much”.

Despite some cynicism, Australia was an early supporter of the ASEAN ambition, committing resources and ideas to help buttress its development. At the beginning, in 1967, both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition spoke positively of their hopes for the grouping. It was under the government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, elected in 1972, that Australia sought to engage with ASEAN more formally, becoming its first official Dialogue Partner.

What has been important, as explained by a senior ASEAN analyst, is that while there have been “lots of ups and downs, and at certain times issues affect our partnership, such as geopolitical issues [and] geoeconomics circumstances, there is a fundamental commitment to work together”.

As Australian IR expert Allan Gyngell argued in his Fear of Abandonment, “ASEAN has been much less about what it can do than about what it can prevent from happening – schisms and divisions in the region and any return to inter-state conflict. For this reason, it can be difficult to recognise all that ASEAN has achieved.”

Growing partnership, 1974–1995

 From the 1970s through to the 1990s, ASEAN and Australia needed to manage a range of issues, including some early tensions. The end of the Vietnam War created conditions for further engagement between Australia and the countries of mainland Southeast Asia. It was a period, as explained by analyst Rhondda Nicholas, when the view that “Australia needs ASEAN more than ASEAN needs Australia [had] become a well-worn cliche in diplomatic and other informed circles”.

There were significant economic and political developments that required deft handling on all sides, with a dispute over civil aviation policies, the response to the Indochina refugee crisis, and the management of conflict in Cambodia all needing attention. In 1984, Brunei joined ASEAN.

During these years, some analysts offered bleak assessments of the future of ASEAN-Australia relations, in a climate of significant great power competition and what was perceived as diminishing Australian influence. Yet Australia worked very creatively to see the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) established at a time when other ASEAN Dialogue Partners were reluctant to see a loose organisation emerge. 

Expanding connections, 1995–2007

 The expansion of ASEAN in the 1990s, growing to include Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, was a key period for broadening Australia’s engagement with the countries of Southeast Asia. The emergence of new economic hubs, including the so-called “Asian tigers”, was accompanied by greater ambitions to develop the opportunities arising from the end of the Cold War. As Gyngell has explained, “the Asian Regional Forum's role was circumscribed by the caution of its ASEAN core.” But it was also during this period that, according to one Southeast Asian security analyst, “ASEAN kept the lid on all types of conflict, and of all the different models of diplomacy this one happened to work.”

Strategic collaboration, 2007–2020

 It was through the next phase of collaboration between ASEAN and Australia that the scope of today’s activities became more apparent. Earlier this century, the countries of Southeast Asia also faced a range of political, economic and humanitarian challenges. From the response to Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar followed by the country’s gradual political liberalisation, through to the global financial crisis, and the rising assertiveness of China in regional affairs, this was a period of significant change for ASEAN and its Dialogue Partners.

It was also during these years that Australia nominated an Ambassador to ASEAN. Gillian Bird, who was the first Australian Ambassador to the regional body, used a 2010 speech at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore to explore the theme of “Australia and ASEAN: 35 years on”. In the same year, the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA) came into force, with a more recent upgrade of this agreement widely welcomed by ASEAN analysts who suggest it is the “best quality FTA in the region”.

By 2013, the Australian Ambassador was based permanently in Jakarta, the same year that ASEAN and Australia celebrated 40 years of partnership with a summit in Naypyidaw, Myanmar. This increased tempo of multilateral cooperation was further marked by the 2018 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Sydney.

Responding to change, 2020–2024

 With these long-term investments as the foundation, Australia’s engagement with ASEAN was designated as a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2021, the first agreement of its type. ASEAN currently has only five such agreements – with Australia, China, United States, India and Japan – among its eleven Dialogue Partners.

The new agreement was achieved with speed and precision, a strong signal of the high regard in which Australia is held by ASEAN members and within the ASEAN Secretariat. 

This well-balanced approach has now created a model of cooperation that generates significant benefits for ASEAN and for Australia and provides a foundation for the future.

This includes the establishment of the Aus4ASEAN Futures Initiative, which is driven by ASEAN priorities and now has a dedicated Aus4ASEAN Futures Office at ASEAN Headquarters.

Much of the effort is devoted to the day-to-day, year-to-year commitment to close cooperation and partnership. As a former ASEAN senior official explained, “When working with us, Australia uses existing structures. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

Nicholas Farrelly, Lina A. Alexandra, Sharon Seah and Kimly Ngoun are co-authors of “Comprehensive Strategic Partners: ASEAN and Australia after the first 50 years”This article previously appeared on the Asialink website. 

Banner Image:  Secretary-General of ASEAN, Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, (L) paid a courtesy call on Prime Minister of Australia, the Honourable Anthony Albanese in Melbourne, ahead of the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit to Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of ASEAN-Australia Dialogue Relations