ASEAN a valuable regional stabiliser

Published on Monday, 14 August 2017 18:25

It is likely that ASEAN will be as important for its member nations and for its regional neighbours, including Australia, in the next 50 years as it has been in the half century just passed. But fulfilling that role will not be a matter of business as usual. There are new risks and opportunities before us.

Mr Wilson (6:25pm) — I'm very happy to speak on this motion. It recognises and celebrates a momentous achievement. ASEAN has been one of the most durable and effective regional groups in the world since it was formed in 1967. This month marks a half century in which its members have navigated a successful passage through a difficult and volatile period. I'm grateful to the member for Bruce for bringing this matter forward for debate and recognition. He has a genuine interest and some not inconsiderable experience in the matter of Australia's engagement in our region.

It's incredible to reflect on the changes that have occurred over the 50 years since the five original members—Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines—signed the Bangkok Declaration and ASEAN was formed. As Nick Bisley, the professor of international relations at La Trobe University has observed:

ASEAN's formation was a product of its times. The group of poor and mostly newly independent countries needed to develop a much more positive approach to one another. Their immediate past had entailed cross-border contests, rivalry and insurgencies …

That context points to and highlights perhaps ASEAN's greatest achievement, namely the contribution it has made to the avoidance of regional conflict and the maintenance of national integrity and stability through a period of great change and considerable geopolitical pressure. This relative stability has, in turn, enabled some remarkable development outcomes. In 1967, for example, Singapore had a per capita GDP of $600. Now it is approximately $53,000, a higher level than we enjoy here in Australia. In 1967, Indonesia, the largest nation in ASEAN and the fifth most populous nation on earth, had a per capita GDP of only $56. Today, it is $3,600, Indonesia is the 16th-largest economy in the world and, by some estimates, it will be the fourth-largest by 2050.

The ASEAN nations account for nine per cent of the world's population and, by 2020, its economic scale will make it the fifth-largest economy in the world. As the motion states, ASEAN nations, taken together, already amount to our third-largest trading partner. As the economic and geopolitical realities of the 21st century—the Asian century—unfold, it is helpful to regard ASEAN as occupying, within the Asia-Pacific, a kind of bolstering and balancing middle ground between the emerging great powers of India and China.

Australia's relationship with ASEAN has always been of enormous significance, and that significance will continue to grow. We were the first country to be an official dialogue partner of ASEAN, a status now held by nine other countries. As such, we were able to benefit from participating in the ASEAN Regional Forum. We have, quite rightly, championed the significance of the East Asia Summit. Next year, Australia will have the honour and privilege of hosting the first ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, which will provide the opportunity to further consider how we will continue to support and interact with this regional group and how we will continue to develop our own identity as an Asia-Pacific nation.

On that issue, I was glad of the chance to participate in a roundtable discussion at the ANU in June with Professor Michael Wesley and others—and, again, I thank the prompting and good organisational work of the member for Bruce. Inevitably, part of the conversation turned on the question of Australia's place in our part in the world and the ways in which we relate to and interact with ASEAN nations. Rather than returning time and again to the perennial chestnut of whether Australia should or could ever be a member of ASEAN, there seemed to be some consensus that we should instead look to developing and strengthening our economic, cultural and diplomatic links in a way that would, in time, make our closer or even direct involvement with ASEAN seem like a natural step.

It is likely that ASEAN will be as important for its member nations and for its regional neighbours, including Australia, in the next 50 years as it has been in the half century just passed. But fulfilling that role will not be a matter of business as usual. There are new risks and opportunities before us. As Professor Bisley has written:

As great power rivalry returns, a divided ASEAN is finding its ability either to shape that rivalry or to carve out space for its members increasingly difficult. To do this it will need to have a much higher level of leadership than in the past to navigate a very difficult international environment. It will also need to be a great deal more adaptable and flexible than it has been in the past.

Unless it can deliver on shaping great power politics and playing a leadership role in the region, ASEAN will become less important both to its members and to Asia. This is an outcome that would make everyone in southeast Asia worse off.

I thank the member for Bruce for bringing this motion and all members who have taken part in the debate, which has been characterised by the respect we have for ASEAN and the value we place on its work to enable regional peace and cooperation.

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