AUSTRALIA and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) issued a joint statement on Sunday, asserting shared commitment to cooperation in trade, cybersecurity, counterterrorism and the adoption of a code of conduct for the South China Sea.
Named the Sydney Declaration and issued at the culmination of the Asean-Australia Special Summit from March 16 to 18, the document declares a “new era” in the “increasingly close” relationship between the regional bloc and its southern neighbour.
Commerce and counterterrorism were the two major themes of the Summit – which was the first time representatives from all 10 member states have met in Australia – and saw the announcement of a raft of new joint initiatives.
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With a combined GDP of US$2.5 trillion in 2016, Asean represents the world’s sixth largest economy and Australia’s fourth largest trading partner with total trade worth US$93.2 billion in 2016.
Professor John Blaxland, Director of the Australian National University (ANU) Southeast Asia Institute and Head of Strategic & Defence Studies Centre told Asian Correspondent that the Summit marked a “serious inflection point” for Australian policymaking.
“Southeast Asia is fundamental to Australia’s security,” said Blaxland. “There is now a bipartisan recognition that we’ve got to take Asean more seriously … especially as the circumstances in our neighbourhood have become more troubled.”
Counterterrorism and the South China Sea
The Sydney Declaration declared a “strong commitment to regional peace and security as well as peaceful resolution of disputes”, noting the need for freedom of navigation, specifically in the South China Sea, as well as calling upon North Korea to comply with UN Security Council resolutions.
It called for the “early conclusion” of a code of conduct for the South China Sea, leading an article published in the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times on Monday to argue that “Australia risks damaging its own interests” if it speaks out against Beijing.
The Sydney Declaration also reasserted cooperation between law enforcement, customs and immigration on countering transnational crime issues including trafficking of drugs, arms and wildlife.
A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed between Australia and Asean on “Combating terrorism and violent extremism” announced workshops on detection and prosecution of online terror crimes and greater intelligence sharing on terrorist financing.
Five months after the siege of Marawi in the Southern Philippines, in which Islamic State-inspired militants fought Philippines security forces resulting in hundreds of deaths, the MOU announced the “establishment of a series of regional dialogues and forums with Asean and Australian law enforcement partners, aimed at combatting the threat of ISIL-affiliated terrorists.”
“Counterterrorism and commerce are two areas that are easy to discuss,” former intelligence expert for the Australian Defence Department and a Visiting Professor at the ANU College of Law, Clive Williams, told Asian Correspondent.
“Some of the counterterrorism ideas are good and sensible, but I can see some problems with this,” he said, stating that Asean states each have differing definitions of terrorism, “so coming up with a regional approach would be difficult.” In cases such as Thailand’s deep south or the southern Philippines, members of separatist movements are automatically deemed terrorists, said Williams.
“Of the five Asean countries with security problems, three (Thailand, the Philippines, Burma) have problems of their own making. We (Australia) would say ‘if you had better policies then you wouldn’t have these problems’,” he said.
Yet if Australia had concerns about human rights in the region, they were not broadcast, instead raised with respective leaders behind closed doors.
“Regarding human rights in Asean, for sure it’s not easy to discuss,” said Arisman, the Executive Director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) in Jakarta. “In Asean we’re used to consensus and respecting the nation-state.”
Trade and building Asean
The Sydney Declaration also said that as “highly trade-oriented economies”, Asean and Australia were committed to “resisting all forms of protectionism” and to “free and open markets”. Turnbull reportedly declared that there were “no protectionists around the table” at Asean at the conclusion of the summit.
While this is not entirely true in practice, said Dr Sanchita Basu Das of the Asean Studies Centre a research fellow at the Asean Studies Centre at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, it sends an important message amid the “global environment at the moment.”
“The summit took place just after President Trump’s announcement about the introduction of tariffs,” she said, noting the importance of Asean-Australia not buying into rhetoric of a trade war. “They were telling people we want free and open trade. At least saying that loudly and clearly is very important at this juncture.”
Digital trade and entrepreneurship was emphasised in the Sydney Declaration, with Arisman stating that Australia could assist the less developed countries in Asean to develop their cyber capabilities and infrastructure. “Australia looks at Indonesia as one of the big markets for the digital economy,” he added.
On Sunday night, the Australian government announced the Asean-Australia Infrastructure Co-operation initiative aimed at creating a pipeline for private and public funds for projects across the region, in what may be seen as a counter to China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative.
“Australia seen as one of the leading countries for public-private partnerships and in big infrastructure projects in the country itself,” said Sanchita, who said the country could provide significant ongoing assistance in terms of Asean integration.
Four new educational initiatives to boost Asean-Australia engagement were also announced, including a regional dialogue involving academics and business leaders focused on skills required for infrastructure development.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs said the education initiatives would help build more “practical and meaningful partnerships” between “emerging leaders”.
Around 100,000 Southeast Asians are studying in Australia, representing around 1 in 5 of all international students there. Professor Blaxland said that to date, they have been viewed as a disaggregated population, however altogether Asean students are just as important as Indians or Chinese in terms of international student numbers.
More broadly, he said the wide-ranging focus of the Sydney Declaration “points to the breadth and depth of the relationship now”.