What does Southeast Asia want from Australia? | Inquirer Opinion

What does Southeast Asia want from Australia?

Australia has been giving increasing priority to Southeast Asia. In 2020, Australia announced its largest funding commitment to the region since the 2004 tsunami. This continued into 2021 with comprehensive strategic partnerships agreed upon with Malaysia, and then with Asean at the historic first annual Asean-Australia Leaders’ Summit.

Will all these lead to deepened Australia-Southeast Asia engagement? The answer will depend crucially on how closely Australia aligns with Southeast Asia’s needs and interests. Greater alignment will build a growing sense of solidarity, while divergence will see Australia and Southeast Asia drift further apart.

So, what does Southeast Asia want from Australia? The authors have been involved in an Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy, and Defence Dialogue (AP4D) program that gathered views on this question. Three main themes emerged.


Don’t treat Southeast Asia as a theater of great power competition. Australia needs to avoid narratives that frame Southeast Asia as a battlefield. The region is utterly disinterested in a competition of systems and wants to be engaged and valued in its own right. It does not want attention in the region simply because of the “China factor.”


That’s not to say that Southeast Asian countries are not concerned about China, or that they are all equally even-handed. The point is that they do not want to pick between China and the United States. Countries in the region do not want to be caught in the middle as they rely on both major powers as a matter of ensuring survival.

By contrast, Australia’s formal security alliance with the US—reinforced by the new AUKUS partnership—means that Southeast Asians generally view Australia as more US-aligned and acting as part of US efforts to challenge China. This can be interpreted as Australia stoking tensions and undermining stability.


Respond to Southeast Asia’s priorities. The second consistent message is to focus Australia’s engagement squarely on the needs of the region. As one participant put it, “The frame of reference should be what’s useful to countries in the region.”

In the wake of COVID-19, the immediate need is for recovery, which the Asian Development Bank assesses as uneven. The impacts of COVID-19 present a major long-term challenge for issues such as unemployment, inequality, and mental health.

Australia has shown that it understands the scale of damage across the region and has responded, but its development assistance to the region had previously been slashed. Australia’s reaction to COVID-19 also presents a challenge as it is perceived to have cut itself off from the region through border closures. As one among many players, and with limited resources, Australia needs to be strategic if it wants to make a valuable contribution. This may mean focusing on an emerging area, such as digital and tech, and investing smartly and generously.

Connect on the basis of shared interests. Finally, there was a consistent call to base Australia’s engagement with the region on shared interests that can foster a mutually beneficial relationship. One option is to focus more on shared principles for cooperation such as “respect for national sovereignty, the peaceful settlement of disputes, non-use of coercion, and respect for international law.” It can also extend its influence beyond governments to their people through engagement with civil society.

What Australia may want is a region that maintains its sovereignty and resilience by pushing back against Chinese encroachment. But the way to achieve this is not by pushing a geopolitical competition agenda but by becoming a trusted partner. This means using all the tools of statecraft to align with the region’s long-term interests.

An ideal Australia we could work toward is one endorsed by Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin Jr., who described Australia as “the anchor of Asean, hanging down there as a steadying force in the rising and ebbing geopolitical tides.” His vision of Australia is as a stabilizer, which is what Southeast Asia wants.

—The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

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Melissa Conley Tyler is program lead and Sarah Allan is a former researcher at the AP4D. This piece is based on research for the AP4D program “Shaping a shared future—deepening Australia’s influence in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.”z

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The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 media titles in the region.

TAGS: Australia, Commentary, Southeast Asia

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