Jul 23, 2014

Australia - Australia failing to leverage ASEAN ties

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Australia's failure to build a strong relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will have ramifications as China's influence in the region grows, analysts say.

The warning came during a conference in Bangkok, Thailand, to mark the 40th anniversary of ASEAN-Australia ties.

In 1974, Australia and ASEAN founding members Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia signed an agreement establishing a dialogue partnership.

But John Blaxland, a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, said Australia had since failed to develop its strategic relationship with ASEAN.

"Why aren't we at the stage where we have a bilateral 'ASEAN plus one' (summit of leaders) with Australia?" Mr Blaxland told AAP.

"A lot of people don't appreciate the utility and significance of ASEAN as an institution, so they are not investing in ASEAN (as a group); they're investing bilaterally instead.

"Australia needs to work much more closely with ASEAN than in the past."

ASEAN has 10 members, with the inclusion of Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam in recent decades.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, a member of Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Security and International Studies, says the ASEAN-Australia relationship will play a central role when it comes to China.

"In the future, ASEAN co-operation with Australia in the overall security issue and with major powers in the case of China will be much (more) crucial," Mr Kavi said.

"Co-operation between ASEAN and Australia amid the rise of China will be one of the new areas."

He also partly blamed the media for Australia's "lack of understanding of Australia and ASEAN".

"I think Australia pays lip service (to ASEAN) because most of the time in East Asia summits, Australia is not on the ASEAN side - it's on the major powers' side."

Gwen Robinson, also a member of the Chulalongkorn University Institute, criticised "the snail's pace growth in trade between Australia and ASEAN in contrast with Northeast Asia, despite ASEAN collectively being Australia's third- or fourth-largest trading partner".

But Ms Robinson said the ASEAN Economic Community from 2015 offered Australia a "perfect opportunity to seize on this as a new era and as a way to build on past goodwill".

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