Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Engaging the neighbours

Engaging the neighbours: Australia and ASEAN since 1974 by Frank Frost 

Eengaging-the-neighboursngaging the Neighbours: is the definitive history of Australia’s attempts to work with and through ASEAN. An institution often mocked for its style, but which has been critical for the security and prosperity of the region.

Australians often describe their nation as facing a choice between its security and economic partners. Yet as Frank Frost details, for everything but the risk of a major power attack on Australia, ASEAN is Australia’s main security partner. Whether the issue is regional conflicts, keeping the major powers from competing in Southeast Asia, irregular migration, drug smuggling or terrorism, ASEAN has been the vehicle for Australia to find security in Asia and with Asia.

At times, Australia has been the ‘odd man in’, pushing for change in a way the rest of the region was not comfortable with. Sometimes our patience has been rewarded, such as with Australian contributions on the Cambodian peace accords or the creation of APEC. At other times, such as Kevin Rudd’s ill-fated Asia-Pacific Community proposal, the divergence has been a source of embarrassment for Canberra.

Many ascribe significant cultural differences to explain the halting and sometimes difficult relationship between Australia and Southeast Asia. But the differences are just as vast within ASEAN as they are between it and the land down under. More important than issues of language or what novels each society reads, is the political culture they adopt. That is, how does politics operate, how are decisions made, divisions resolved and minorities treated.

Australia’s political culture is firmly in the adversarial, legal, majority rules western model. ASEAN’s style can seem at times the reverse of that. Consensus is the order of the day, norms and traditions dominate laws, and the 80% saying yes often have less power than the 1% who says no.

Frost reveals how ASEAN and Australia have managed to forge a very effective partnership. The overlap of interest is real, and while this does not mean they will automatically or easily cooperate, both are pulling in roughly the same direction. Despite occasional public rhetoric to the contrary, there is a hunger and opportunity for an Australian voice in the region. But how it is given, and whether it is done with an awareness of what is already underway is often key.

In Rudd’s case for instance, the mandarin speaking diplomat showed both a lack of knowledge of Southeast Asia, and a lack of care for their concerns. In 2008 he proposed a new multilateral forum in a region already feeling overburdened by them. He talked of emulating the European Union, despite the obvious horror this would cause. And he proposed his forum without any prior consultation in a region whose leaders don’t like surprises.

If only he had consulted Frank. At the time, Frost was still working in the Parliamentary Library, as Senior Foreign Affairs Analyst and Research Director. Frost’s style is very readable, but it carries the legacy of a career in the bureaucracy. It is very straight down the line, and researched as carefully as any book can be.

This can lead to an occasionally dry style, but anyone wanting to pick up this book to know about ASEAN Australia relations can take great confidence that anything they later cite or quote is accurate. As the journalist Graeme Dobell recounted in his launch speech, he tried to encourage ‘Less facts, more Frank’ to Frost while the book was being written. In a few spots he clearly succeeded.

There are therefore important insights by the author on the importance of mutual ideas of ‘region’ in shaping the way Australia and ASEAN interact. Equally, Frost demonstrates that Australia needs to show a genuine concern for the problems faced by Southeast Asian countries, and can’t just engage whenever Canberra has its own problems to solve. Finally, as many have argued elsewhere—including yours truly— Indonesia is the gatekeeper for Australian initiatives. With Jakarta onside, Canberra’s ideas will be given a fair hearing. Without it, the task is extremely difficult.

The question is increasingly asked whether Australia may ever become a member of ASEAN. On this, Frost’s conclusion seems a clear no. At least for the foreseeable future, they are too different, and the costs for Australia in particular outweigh the benefits. But even as an observer sitting outside the core mechanisms, Australia’s security and well-being is intimately tied to ASEAN’s.
Understanding exactly how this relationship has developed is therefore vital for everyone interested in Australia’s place in the world. In just 200 tightly written and extensively documented pages, Frank Frost has provided an invaluable account.

(P.s As an ANU Press publication, while hard copies are for sale in bookstores, a free PDF version is available on the publishers website).