Australian PM Closes Special ASEAN Summit With Calls to ‘Destiny’

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Australian PM Closes Special ASEAN Summit With Calls to ‘Destiny’

While showcasing the divergences between Australia and its Southeast Asian partners, the summit can be deemed a success in both form and substance.

Australian PM Closes Special ASEAN Summit With Calls to ‘Destiny’

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese poses for a photo with Southeast Asian leaders during the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne, Australia, March 6, 2024.

Credit: X/Anthony Albanese

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese issued an emphatic commitment to Southeast Asia as he brought the special Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to a close in Melbourne yesterday.

In remarks to Southeast Asian leaders on the closing day of the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, Albanese described the diverse, sprawling region as the key to his nation’s future.

“More than any other part of the world, Southeast Asia is where Australia’s destiny lies,” Albanese told ASEAN leaders. “This is why we will continue to support your ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and ensure the stability and peace of our region.”

Albanese’s remarks came as he and co-host Laos, this year’s ASEAN chair, wrapped up the March 4-6 summit, which marks 50 years since Australia became the bloc’s first official Dialogue Partner. The summit was intended to build on the progress in ASEAN-Australia relations that has taken place under Albanese’s Labor government, which came to office in 2022, pledging to bolster the country’s relations with the region. The summit was also attended by Xanana Gusmão, the leader of aspiring ASEAN member Timor-Leste, and New Zealand’s Prime Minister Christopher Luxon.

Anchored by Albanese’s paeans to the future of relations with ASEAN, the summit focused predominantly on economic cooperation, particularly in renewable energy. However, it was overshadowed by the disputes in the South China Sea, where a collision between Chinese and Philippine coast guard vessels took place on Tuesday, in the vicinity of Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands. In his address to ASEAN leaders, Albanese referred to the collision and expressed his concerns about “unsafe and destabilizing behavior” in the disputed waterway.

“It is dangerous and it creates risks of miscalculation, which can then lead to escalation,” he said of the incident.

This came shortly before Australia and the 10 ASEAN member states endorsed the Melbourne Declaration, which called for peaceful resolution of the South China Sea disputes through legal and diplomatic processes “without resorting to the threat or use of force” in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“We encourage all countries to avoid any unilateral actions that endanger peace, security and stability in the region,” the Declaration stated.

This language was largely consistent with past ASEAN statements on the disputes. According to The Associated Press, Australia and the Philippines had pushed for the Declaration to include reference to cite the 2016 arbitration ruling that invalidated Beijing’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea. But as is now customary for ASEAN, the final document mentions neither the ruling nor refers to China by name, a reflection of the fact that some ASEAN member states, even those with competing claims in the South China Sea, are unwilling to jeopardize their fruitful economic relations with China.

In an interview with the ABC yesterday, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong acknowledged the differing views among ASEAN leaders on how best to deal with Chinese actions. “Rather than thinking about what might or might not happen, we should focus on what we want to protect, what we want to ensure, what we want to assure in order to preserve peace, stability and prosperity,” she said.

A similar compromise can be seen in the Melbourne Declaration’s paragraphs on the situation in Gaza and Myanmar. Canberra initially wanted stronger language on these issues, too, but was forced to reconcile these with the differing – and sometimes sharply divergent – positions of the various ASEAN member states.

On the war in Gaza, the Declaration called for an “immediate and durable humanitarian ceasefire” and the release of the civilian hostages captured by the Palestinian group Hamas in October. It also condemned “attacks against all civilians and civilian infrastructure.”

This language represented the common denominator between the ASEAN countries, some of which have been stridently critical of Israel, and Australia, which has tilted toward Israel since the beginning of the war in October, though has become more critical of the humanitarian impact of Israel’s ruthless assaults on Gaza.

A similar compromise attended the Declaration’s reference to Myanmar, whose military government was officially excluded from the summit, due to its failure to implement ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus peace plan. The declaration stated that the leaders “strongly condemn the continued acts of violence,” calling for “effective humanitarian assistance, and inclusive national dialogue.” The statement “reaffirm[ed] our support for the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus as ASEAN’s main reference to address the political crisis in Myanmar.”

The Five-Point Consensus, formulated at a special ASEAN meeting in Jakarta in April 2021, has been widely criticized for failing to make much (or any) headway on its main aims: to halt the violence and convene inclusive political dialogue. Here, again, the Declaration has been colored by the differing opinions between ASEAN member states on how to proceed, with the mainland states tilting toward accommodation of the country’s military government and the maritime nations – particularly Indonesia and Malaysia – favoring a more punitive approach.

None of these statements are as strong as many Western observers, and most likely the Australian government, would no doubt have preferred. But if Australia wants closer relations with ASEAN, whatever its shortcomings, efforts to find common ground are more or less the price of admission. As Susannah Patton of the Lowy Institute argued in a thread on X (formerly Twitter), “given the purpose of the summit is to build relationships with ASEAN it would be self-defeating to push aggressively beyond the group’s level of comfort.”

Despite the distraction of these issues, which collectively made up just a small percentage of the Melbourne Declaration, Australia’s summit appears to have succeeded in communicating a strong message of commitment to ASEAN. The most significant “deliverable” was the A$2 billion ($1.3 billion) fund announced yesterday, to boost trade and investment in Southeast Asia. According to a statement from Albanese’s office, the Southeast Asia Investment Financing Facility will provide loans, guarantees, equity, and insurance for projects that would boost Australian trade and investment in Southeast Asia, “particularly in support of the region’s clean energy transition and infrastructure development.”

Roland Rajah of the Lowy Institute told the ABC on Tuesday that the fund was a “really good outcome,” and suggested that the government “is intent on using the facility to really leverage Australian knowledge and expertise on clean energy.”

The other main announcements included additional funding for maritime security (A$64 million) and infrastructure (A$140 million), as well as a host of smaller commitments, including the establishment of an ASEAN-Australia Centre in Canberra and an expansion of Australia’s scholarship program for ASEAN nationals. The Albanese government also announced that it would ease access to business visas for Southeast Asians and provide English language training for Timor-Leste to “support its path to full ASEAN membership.”

All told, the summit, which has been widely viewed as a success in both form and substance, brought the Albanese government closer to realizing its stated goal of fostering closer relations with Southeast Asia.

For years, Australia’s relationship with Southeast Asia has been characterized by a considerable gap between the rhetoric of leaders on both sides, and the practical reality of two regions with very different cultures, historical backgrounds, and political systems. This week’s summit has succeeded at closing this gap to a degree. The challenge now is for both sides to maintain this momentum.

The challenge for [Australia] is sustaining this financially, diplomatically, and politically,” Thomas Daniel of the think-tank ISIS Malaysia wrote on X today. “The challenge for ASEAN is to find the political will meet partners like [Australia] halfway, and sometimes a bit more.”