The Asialink report argues that it's only through a closer ASEAN relationship that Australia can secure its place in the Asian Century.
Lead author Professor Tony Milner says Australian public discussion has been mesmerised by China and the US alliance, but an Australia acting alone will have limited impact.
Professor Milner from the ANU and also Asialink's International Director, spoke to me about the report, "South-East Asia as 'The Third Way."
Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Professor Tony Milner, International Director, Asialink and Basham Professor of Asian History, Australian National University
MILNER: First of all, we've really got experience in South-East Asia, it's that part of the Asian region that's closest to us. It's that part that we've really done the most in, going right back to the creation of the nation states in the South-East Asian region. There's a sort of natural fit with South-East Asia, much more so, than with any other part of the Asian region.
But importantly in this, and why I think South-East Asia needs particular emphasis is that when we think about "engaging with Asia" and that phrase is there, again and again, in the government's Whitepaper on the Asian Century - we've got to say, "engaging where, in which direction?" If we engage too strongly with Japan, say, particularly in a security dimension, we simply provoke China. The same sort of issue arises I think, if we put great emphasis on the relationship with India. Of course, both are important relationships, but I think it does not have a 'downside' if we push the ASEAN centrality in our policy towards the Asian region.
If we see ASEAN as central, if we get it right and then build upon that, and move outward, using our relations with ASEAN to increase our influence - in Beijing and in Washington too. But I don't think it's one or the other. In many ways, we're a better ally for the United States, if we've got a strong relationship in the ASEAN region. Many of our important relationships of course are bilateral relations in the region, but knowing the region, collaborating with people in the region, consulting with people, building I suppose, through this understandable influence in the region, that makes us a more valuable ally for the United States.
LAM: And Professor Milner, you are an old Asia hand, particularly in South-East Asia, so you're very familiar with the issues, but do you think Australia as a nation, and indeed, recent governments, do you think they're clear about what exactly it is, that Australia wants out of an ASEAN relationship?
MILNER: We have a substantial ASEAN relationship. If we take the ASEAN region itself, it's about the second largest trading partner for Australia - so that's a big economic relationship. We're also busy diplomatically in that region but it doesn't get much profile. We're very busy in security relations, military relations and again, not much profile. For a short period, of course, in the counter-terrorism period, we got profile for our police cooperation there, we have an impressive depth of police cooperation. So we're doing things in that region, but that's not appearing in the public narrative in Australia.
So part of our objective really, is to try and get Australians to think more in terms of that ASEAN relationship - not just think of this as a United States ally, and the polls always stress that - but think of us, as an US ally plus - an US ally that's also familiar with and working with, consulting with the nearest part of Asia to us.
I think one of the interesting signs recently is that Foreign minister Carr has been visitiing the region quite a bit. And there's much pleasure in that, a feeling that that's proper, it ought to be happening and they (ASEAN) are very pleased that he's doing so. He also seems to be listening in the region, being a good diplomat there. These are positive signs and I must repeat them, because I've heard them recently.
LAM: Economics aside, key goals include geo-strategic, political, security considerations. But ASEAN has yet to come up with a coherent strategy in itself, where the grouping is concerned, in dealing with China on issues of sovereignty in the South China Sea. I'm thinking of this month's summit in Phnom Penh, when the heads of government failed to agree on a key strategy on how to deal with China.
MILNER: Well, first of all, it's important to say that our argument about our relations with the ASEAN region, is about South-East Asia. Our argument's not dependent on the effectiveness of the ASEAN organisation itself. I'm far more optimistic about ASEAN as an institution, than many of my colleagues who're observing the region. I think it's really remarkable how peaceful South east Asian region has been. There're classic conditions for violence, that should develop between say, Thailand and Malaysia, Malaysia and Indonesia. There was some shooting between Cambodia and Thailand, but that's... First of all, it was not a huge matter, and secondly, it's so rare. So ASEAN actually has had great success, in helping to bring order to the South-East Asian region. Go back a few decades and it was a region that people saw as a very dangerous part of the world. I think it's much less so now.
LAM: Gareth Evans, who was foreign minister during the Hawke-Keating era, tells an anecdote of being at a big regional meeting, when he wanted a quiet place to make a phone call. He stumbled upon a group of ASEAN ministers chatting quietly in a room. And when he apologised and proceeded to retreat, one of the ASEAN ministers said, "No, come on in. You're one of us."
Gareth Evans of course was warmed by this sentiment, but was there more to it, than just South-East Asian politeness, do you think?
MILNER: I don't think it's likely that Australia's ever going to become a member of ASEAN, I don't think we should be seeking that. But if we're talking about whether they feel pretty comfortable dealing with Australia, gosh, we got that message again, and again. It was surprising and very pleasing from our consultations in the region.
And I've got stories just like Gareth Evans stories. I was in Bali just a few weeks ago, getting exactly that treatment from quite important people in track two diplomacy in the region - developing really easy relationships there.
This is important, it's simply not highlighted enough.
LAM: ASEAN, like Asia, is not one huge homogenous mass. What can we do, apart from the major institutions and instruments, what role is there, for grassroots relationships, relationship-building?
MILNER: I think the government White Paper is addressing some of that. It's a big task. One of the problems of the White Paper is that it doesn't quite recognise how large a task this re-orientation of the Australian community is, toward the Asian region. I mean, that's general, that's not just with ASEAN.
Despite the demographic changes in this country, we're largely a western country, with western institutions and that's how we're perceived in the region. Now, shifting towards a greater people-to-people interaction with the Asian region, getting our students to go study there, and not just the other way around, this is a really important process and it's a long term process, and we're going to have to put funding into it, a lot of carrots as well as sticks to make this work.
LAM: And of course, we've already made a good start with Malaysia - we have a close grassroots relationship there, haven't we?
MILNER: Yeah, I mean, I think it's an interesting case, because there's been plenty of tension as well as good feeling in the Australia-Malaysia relationship...
LAM: Tension between the leaders, but on the ground...?
MILNER: Ya ..
LAM: Do you think there's tension there?
MILNER: Yes, I think it can more (inaudible) ... than the leaders, but that's quite healthy. I mean, part of engagement is probably to have abit of friction. We have some friction of course, with Singapore. There's some very direct coming from Singapore, in discussing Australia, Austalian policies. And not just government but Australian individual attitudes. But we have to work through all of that. When I hear people say there's difficulty with Singapore, and difficulty with Malaysia, I think that's just a sign that we're deepening that relationship, those relationships doesn't bother me too much as long as we deal with it pretty sensitively.