Assessing the Chinese Influence: The Prospects of Australia Joining ASEAN

From 4 to 6 March 2024, Australia hosted a special summit, the second of its kind on its soil, with the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the establishment of relations between the two sides. They discussed ways to strengthen the economic partnership between Australia and ASEAN, support the acceleration of the transition to clean energy, as well as increase maritime cooperation and support emerging leaders.

In addition to the leaders of ASEAN member states, with the exception of Myanmar, the summit also saw the participation of the leader of East Timor, who has been an associate member of the Association since November 2022.

Crisis contexts:

The Australia-ASEAN summit was held in light of tense contexts and atmosphere in the Southeast Asian region, in which China was a common denominator, in addition to tensions in many other regions of the world, especially in the Middle East, and this can be clarified as follows:

  1. Escalating tensions in the South China Sea: The South China Sea region has witnessed a marked increase in tensions recently, especially between China and the Philippines. The Philippine Coast Guard has blamed the Chinese Navy for two collisions on March 5, 2024, between the two sides’ vessels, which resulted in four crew members being injured, one of which was injured with water cannons, during a supply mission in the Second Thomas Shoal, a sector that is witnessing frequent incidents. Beijing responded by accusing Philippine forces, who have Washington’s backing, of “deliberately” ramming the Chinese ship to provoke an incident after its incursion into the region.

Perhaps the above explains Beijing’s accusation that the United States uses the Philippines as a “pawn” in the South China Sea, especially in light of the close cooperation between Washington and Manila, and the United States’ support for the Philippine position in the dispute with China. The latest incident is a feature of growing disputes in recent months in the South China Sea, where the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, which are also members of ASEAN, dispute sovereignty over some areas. On December 30, 2023, ASEAN Foreign Ministers expressed concern over the growing tension in the South China Sea, warning that it could threaten peace, security and stability in the region.

  1. US attempts to provoke China: The Australia-ASEAN summit was held in conjunction with Washington’s attempt to provoke Beijing regarding the issue of freedom of navigation and maritime security in the South China Sea, which was reflected in the crossing of the Taiwan Strait by a US warship on March 5, 2024, which also coincided with the launch of the annual conference of the Chinese People’s Congress, in a step that Washington considers within the framework of freedom of navigation on the high seas, while Beijing considered it a provocation and exaggeration of the matter. Warships of the United States and its Western allies frequently transit the disputed Taiwan Strait and South China Sea to entrench their status as international waterways and refute Chinese claims to sovereignty.
  2. Continuing differences between China and Australia: Over the past few years, relations between China and Australia have witnessed remarkable tension against the backdrop of many political and economic differences between the two countries, especially Australia’s demand for an international investigation into the origin of the “Corona” virus, which was first detected in China at the end of 2019. China responded by imposing high tariffs in 2020 on Australian exports of meat and wine.

Despite the emergence of signs of improvement in relations between the two countries, especially after the return of the Labour party to power in Australia in May 2022, and the visit of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to China in November 2023, which was considered an indication of the improvement of bilateral relations, there is a divergence in positions between the two countries at the strategic level, especially on security issues and the security and military alliance between Australia and the United States, which Beijing sees as directed mainly at it.

  1. Israeli war in the Gaza Strip: The summit between Australia and ASEAN took place at a time when the Israeli war in the Gaza Strip continues. This war has resulted in the death of nearly 31,000 people and the injury of more than 72,000 on the Palestinian side since October 7, 2023. Gazans are also suffering from severe shortages of food and medicine, leaving Gazans vulnerable to a famine that has begun to claim the lives of children in Gaza. International organizations have warned several times that the population of the Strip is facing a catastrophic famine, most recently the United Nations warning that at least 576,000 people in Gaza, representing a quarter of the population, are on the brink of famine.

ASEAN includes the Muslim-majority countries Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. ASEAN defense ministers have called for an end to the war in Gaza. Australia is a staunch supporter of Israel, despite previously calling for a ceasefire and criticizing the high death toll from the war.

Summit Outcomes:

The Australia-ASEAN summit resulted in many important outcomes that confirm the desire of both sides to deepen cooperation between them, especially in the political, economic and security fields, and this can be clarified as follows:

  1. Deepening economic cooperation: Australia sees its future in Southeast Asia more than any other region; therefore, it wants to deepen its economic ties with ASEAN countries, in an attempt to find a balance between its relations with China, its largest trading partner, on the one hand, and its relations with the United States, its main security ally, on the other. Australia is diversifying its trading partners in its new Southeast Asia Economic Strategy, which was highlighted at the ASEAN Summit in Jakarta in September 2023. Australia and some ASEAN countries, especially the Philippines, are also seeking to protect their economies from any hawkish economic policies by China.

Canberra has announced its desire to increase its investments in Southeast Asia by allocating $1.3 billion to boost business activity in the region, which has high potential for economic growth. Australia’s announced measures provide aid and loans to finance infrastructure and renewable energy projects.

Philippine Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo spoke about the importance of his country strengthening its partnerships with other countries, with the aim of helping the Philippine economy be more resilient, expressing his country’s hope to start negotiations to reach a free trade agreement with the European Union as soon as possible. This is a move to reduce dependence on China.

  1. The possibility of Australia joining ASEAN: Statements by some ASEAN leaders revealed that there is a trend among the prominent Asian regional bloc for the possibility of including Australia in its membership. Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim proposed including Australia in ASEAN, given Canberra’s important place in the Asian regional bloc, a proposal that was supported by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in light of his country’s strong ties with Australia.

Australia became ASEAN’s first dialogue partner in 1974, hosted the summit with ASEAN in 2018, and announced the elevation of the ASEAN Dialogue to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2021. It also views ASEAN as its main trading partner, and Canberra expects its bilateral trade volume with the regional bloc to reach A$400 billion by 2040, up from A$178 billion in 2022.

ASEAN has ten member states: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. In 2022, ASEAN agreed to accept East Timor as the eleventh member of the regional bloc, and East Timor had applied to become an official member of ASEAN in 2011.

  1. Trying to build consensus on maritime security threats: The issue of threats to maritime security in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the South China Sea, received considerable attention from the Australia-ASEAN Summit. The summit was particularly focused on differences in the South China Sea and the associated threat to maritime security in the region. This was reflected in the statements of both sides during the summit. Australia has confirmed that countries in the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asia face serious defense threats, and announced more funds for the Maritime Security Agreement with Southeast Asian countries. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said her country will invest US$41.8 million over four years, including $26 million in new funding, to contribute to the security and prosperity of the region, in line with the priorities of Southeast Asian countries.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said the Philippines would cooperate with China in talks on the disputed South China Sea, but would respond if its sovereignty and maritime rights were ignored, stressing his commitment to work with Southeast Asian countries and China to develop a code of conduct for the South China Sea based on international law.

On February 29, 2024, Australia and the Philippines signed a series of agreements in the fields of defense, maritime cooperation and cybersecurity, during the visit of the President of the Philippines to Australia, and the Australian Prime Minister announced new investments worth $20 million to support reforms in the Philippines. In November 2023, Australia and the Philippines conducted joint naval and air patrols in the South China Sea for the first time.

  1. Confronting climate change: The question of how to deal with climate change has received significant attention from the summit, with countries in the Asia-Pacific region relying heavily on fossil energy, and Australia being one of the world’s largest exporters of gas and thermal coal. There is a common desire on both sides to switch to renewable energy and make the most of their vast natural and mineral wealth; the continued success of ASEAN countries in developing their economies is linked to the availability of more energy sources, which can be obtained through enhanced cooperation with Australia.

The two parties can also cooperate in the field of manufacturing electric cars within the framework of the transition to the use of renewable energy sources, especially since they have many important metals that go into the manufacture of electric car batteries, as Indonesia and the Philippines are among the largest countries in the world in the production of nickel, while Australia is the largest producer of lithium in the world.

Australia and Indonesia are already collaborating on electric vehicle batteries, and Canberra has launched an A$50 million (US$33 million) initiative to attract climate finance to Indonesia.

  1. Call for an end to the Israeli war in Gaza: Australia and ASEAN have called for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, with the summit’s joint statement reiterating concern over the “dangerous” humanitarian situation in Gaza, while calling for the release of all detainees in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. The statement also condemned attacks against all civilians and civilian infrastructure, which are further deteriorating the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, including restricting access to food, water and other basic needs.

Divergent semantics:

The Australia-ASEAN summit reflected a set of divergent connotations, especially with regard to the position towards China and the extent of the independence of the foreign policy of the ASEAN countries, and this can be illustrated as follows:

  1. Targeting China: The positions included in the joint statement issued at the end of the summit, as well as the statements of some leaders and senior officials of the countries participating in the summit, reflected a clear targeting of China, in light of its recent moves in the South China Sea region. ASEAN countries and Australia warned of what they described as “peace-threatening” moves in the South China Sea, implicitly referring to China: “We encourage all countries to avoid any unilateral move that would threaten peace, security and stability in the region,” the joint statement said, adding: “We recognize the benefits of the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and prosperity.”

Both sides called for restraint in the disputed South China Sea and called for a “rules-based” order in the Indo-Pacific region as China looks to increase its presence in the South China Sea.

For his part, the Philippine president expressed grave concern over what he called ongoing dangerous exercises and actions against the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard. Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo called on Beijing to stop harassing his country. Australia has also taken a tough stance on China, with the Australian prime minister telling the summit: “We must ensure that activities in the South China Sea ease tensions and do not lead to an escalation.”

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has expressed his country’s readiness to receive Australia’s future fleet of nuclear submarines (which is being established under the AUKUS agreement) in its territorial waters, a move that would anger Beijing.

  1. ASEAN’s keenness on the independence of its decision: The summit between Australia and ASEAN showed a strong desire on the part of ASEAN member states to refuse to adopt a position of bias in the competition between major powers, stressing the important role played by China in achieving economic growth in the region, and its refusal to get involved in any dispute between Beijing and Washington.

Statements by some leaders and senior ASEAN officials have revealed an outright rejection of attempts to force the regional bloc to take sides in the competition between major powers. Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim stated that “the United States and some of its allies should not prevent Malaysia from being a friend of China,” stressing that his country has no problem with China. In an interview with the Financial Times, he denounced what he saw as a growing “Chinaphobia” between the United States and some of its allies in response to Washington’s criticism of Kuala Lumpur’s relations with Beijing.

For his part, ASEAN Secretary-General Kao Kim Hourn stressed that the regional bloc will never choose to take sides in the competition between major countries. ASEAN countries generally adopt a policy of neutrality and non-alignment in competition between major powers, which allows them to maintain good relations with various countries and avoid being drawn directly into conflicts.

  1. Growing economic prestige of ASEAN: The Asian regional bloc has become a new economic locomotive at the international level, as it is estimated that ASEAN represents the world’s economic dark horse and is on its way to becoming a global center of growth. With huge potential, led by strong demographic growth, Southeast Asia is expected to play a pivotal role in the global clean energy effort, with its vast reserves of important minerals and growing demand for electricity. Perhaps the above explains Australia’s interest in strengthening its economic relations with ASEAN, as part of its search for other economic partnerships, after its economic differences with China, its main trading partner.

In summary, it can be said that the Australia-ASEAN summit, hosted by Canberra recently, represents an important qualitative leap in the framework of closer relations between the two sides, in light of the outputs it produced in the political, economic and security fields, the most important of which is the issue of Australia’s accession to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is supported by the chances of achieving the strong relations between the two sides, and the opening of ASEAN membership in the bloc to other countries, as evidenced by its welcome to the accession of East Timor in principle to its membership, as well as the keenness of the ASEAN countries to adopt a policy of neutrality and non-alignment in the competition between China and the United States, and to uphold the principle of national interest in their international relations. However, the Chinese challenge remains the main factor that may prevent Australia from being accepted as an ASEAN member, given the continuing strategic differences between Beijing and Canberra on the one hand, and China’s strained relations with some ASEAN countries, such as the Philippines, on the other.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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