Australia’s Ambivalence Towards ASEAN

Ewen Levick

February 08, 2018

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In a recent article published in a Phnom Penh newspaper, the Australian ambassador to Cambodia, Angela Corcoran, highlighted the strengths of Australia’s relationship with Cambodia and with the wider region. The article was published in advance of the 2018 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, which will be held in Australia for the first time in mid-March. According to Corcoran, the summit will “chart a course for collective action” and “realise new opportunities”. However, Australia has often been ambivalent about its relationship with ASEAN and is still debating whether to become an observer member. Given this ambivalence, will the summit really achieve the goals outlined by Ambassador Corcoran? 

Australia certainly has an economic interest in strengthening relations with the bloc. The members of ASEAN are collectively Australia’s third-largest trading partner, with a potential market of 620 million consumers. The free trade agreement between ASEAN, Australia, and New Zealand (AANZFTA) has facilitated the growth of economic relations, particularly in resources, agriculture, and development assistance. Australia also has a security interest. The ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting (ADMM-Plus) is crucial to Australia’s engagement in regional security issues, including terrorism and organised crime, and the ASEAN Regional Forum is the only meeting that allows Australian and North Korean officials to speak face-to-face. The Australian shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, has even argued that Canberra should rely more heavily on ASEAN to mitigate tensions between China and the US.