ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Oceania | Southeast Asia

Australia in ASEAN: An Ever-Floating Idea Without a Clear Case?

While the idea has been advanced for years in certain circles, it remains unclear what this would actually achieve.

Luke Hunt
Australia in ASEAN: An Ever-Floating Idea Without a Clear Case?
Credit: ASEAN Secretariat

For years, the idea of Australia joining ASEAN has been circulated within some circles, with varying degrees of seriousness and oftentimes without due regard for how the idea would actually match up with political realities. Though the idea remains unlikely to take off anytime soon for various reasons, the larger point is that it remains unclear what it would actually achieve for Australia in the first place.

To be sure, ASEAN is an important region for Australia to invest in. Economically, for instance, ASEAN is an attractive market of about 650 million people and a GDP of $284 trillion, providing terrific opportunities for Australia, which has a small a population of just 25 million but a relatively high GDP of $1.23 trillion.

But the idea of Australia joining ASEAN is another proposition altogether. Apart from some rhetorical support for the idea in certain circles, which flies in the face of the realities of the grouping’s already heightening challenges that have come from expansions already undertaken in the 1990s – partly informing its foot-dragging on Timor-Leste’s inclusion in the grouping – it is unclear whether this would actually advance Australia’s interests much more than Canberra’s current path of being a close partner.

The economic case for Australian membership in ASEAN is itself unclear. While ASEAN is certainly a good market, Australian companies could get those gains as a non-member and partner without the Australian government having to entangle itself in the politics of advancing incremental economic initiatives, such as the continued efforts to build out the remaining aspects of the ASEAN Economic Community. While there may be a case for greater integration into such a community, it is not exactly clear to what extent and in what areas Australia would benefit across those areas relative to the current gains it enjoys.

Beyond just economics, there is also the broader issue of differences between Australia and ASEAN states. None of the 10 countries in ASEAN are close to enjoying the same living standards as Australians do. And nor do they carry the same moral authority and influence on the world stage – rights and responsibilities that most members of ASEAN actually find tricky.

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Those differences matter. For instance, troubling records on democracy and human rights, issues which are nearly always shoved aside by the ASEAN maxim of declining to comment on the internal affairs of a neighbor, would only undermine Australia’s ability to assert itself as required by international events.

For that reason, Australian membership to the bloc is a notion human rights advocates find objectionable. Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based spokesman for Human Rights Watch is among them, and has noted that Australia would likely not be able to get around the fact that being an ASEAN member “means keeping your mouth shut about so-called sensitive matters like human rights.” This is largely because ASEAN is beset by credibility issues, too often predicated on religion and vested politics, which offer a stark contrast to the democratic and egalitarian values that Australia prides itself on and thus membership would also be a hard sell to the Australian people. Examples run the gamut, from rigged elections in Thailand to allegations of genocide in Myanmar to sharia law in Brunei.

To be fair, it would likely prove just as hard justifying Australian membership to ASEAN among Southeast Asians as it would be at home. The echo chamber would chime: too high and mighty, especially on human rights, too many prime ministers, and too good at sports, which matters in the soccer arena, to take just one example.

There is much more that could be said about this subject, but even the brief examination above suggests that there is little room for Australia’s entry into ASEAN moving beyond just a convenient talking point related to advancing Australia-Southeast Asia ties. It may be a nice idea for some, but at the end of the day, for most, it would be a concept that is just not worth it.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt