ASEAN/Australia/New Zealand – becoming natural partners

Europe's World

Asia, Africa & Emerging Economies

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David Taylor

Australia and New Zealand have been friends and partners of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its members for more than 40 years. Both countries recognize ASEAN as being among their most important partners, both at a regional level and with important bilateral connections across the region.

The two countries are often paired, but each has distinctive characteristics and interests. Australia is a G-20 member, with a strong alliance with the United States and its representational, security and development assistance commitments in the region reflect its heft. New Zealand is a smaller regional power, but equally strongly committed to the region. Both countries share strong economic and political ties with South East Asia, a commitment to regional processes, and core values.

Former ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan was reported to have told an Australian audience in 2012, “You [Australia] have found Southeast Asia, don’t lose it”. I suspect he would have said the same thing to a New Zealand audience.

This wasn’t a new point. Back in the ‘90s there was a regional debate about whether Australia and New Zealand were part of Asia or not.

While Surin Pitsuwan’s point about the need to keep working on the relationship, to never take it for granted, is spot on, the reality is that New Zealand and Australia each enjoy longstanding ties with the region.

Both have stepped up their engagement and commitment this century, conscious that strong links in South East Asia are essential.

The Pacific War brought home the strategic significance of South East Asia in the most powerful way. Subsequent regional struggles (particularly Konfrontasi between Indonesia and Malaysia and the Indochinese conflicts) reinforced that lesson.

Today both countries view South East Asia as being critical to their security interests. They belong to the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus, the East Asia Summit and other processes that contribute strongly to regional security. Both remain partners with Malaysia, Singapore and the United Kingdom in the Five Power Defence Arrangement. Each maintains bilateral defence cooperation links and programmes with certain ASEAN member states.

Australia and New Zealand have also joined the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM), ultimately as part of the Asian membership group.

It’s possible to trace economic links between Australia and New Zealand and Southeast Asia to the pre-war period when engineers and experts from both countries were involved in resource extraction industries. But the trade and economic relationship in each case has blossomed since the 1970s.

The conclusion of the ASEAN Australia New Zealand Free Trade Agreement in 2009, still the benchmark for ASEAN in terms of comprehensiveness and quality, has led to ever stronger two-way trade flows and investment. Two-way merchandise trade between ASEAN and Australia grew to A$78.8 billion in 2014 or around 14 per cent of Australia’s overall trade (over A$100 billion including services) and second largest trading partner globally. ASEAN was New Zealand’s 4th largest trading partner in the year to March 2015 with trade in goods valued at NZ$15.2 billion, accounting for 9.1% of New Zealand’s exports and 14 % of imports. The trade is complementary in each case.

Investment is also on the rise and features flows in both directions, a mark of the growing strength and maturity of the leading ASEAN economies in particular. The welcome success of AANZFTA reflects positively on the overall partnership between ASEAN and Australia/New Zealand.

Beyond the AANZFTA, New Zealand has bilateral FTAs with Singapore (2001), Thailand (2005), Brunei (2005) and Malaysia (2010). Australia has deals with Singapore (2003), Thailand (2005) and Malaysia (2012) and negotiations with Indonesia commenced in 2012. Dynamic free trade arrangements with other partners, in New Zealand’s case including China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, open the way for exciting new supply chain and investment possibilities among partners.

So too should the Trans Pacific Partnership currently nearing conclusion (this includes Australia, Brunei, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and Viet Nam along with the United States, Japan and several other partners).

Both Australia and New Zealand are involved in the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations that are designed to bring together ASEAN and its six FTA partners (the others are China, India, Japan, Korea) into the world’s largest such agreement.

Through the Integration Partnership Forum initiated in 2011, New Zealand and Australia have been holding expert level workshops with ASEAN about the integration process. It’s a little known fact that the Closer Economic Relationship (CER) between the two Southern Ocean partners, in addition to being the world’s most complete single market experiment to date, also brings together 10 entities – nine Australian States and territories and New Zealand. The experience does not mirror the ASEAN integration story, but it provides useful insights and lessons learned.

South East Asia continues to face substantial development challenges and poverty has not yet been eradicated across the region. Australia and New Zealand have maintained substantial programmes of assistance in the region since the Pacific War. In addition to contributing to nation-building, infrastructure development, and better capacity, vibrant people to people links have been established.

Migrant communities and professionals working in different places also make an important contribution to people to people links. Tourism in both directions is flourishing, helping South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand to know each other better.

Beyond these core elements in links between Australia and New Zealand and South East Asia, there are a host of deeply embedded bilateral connections with individual members of ASEAN. Australia has a diplomatic presence in all 10 ASEAN member states and Timor Leste (part of the region, but not yet a member of ASEAN), while New Zealand has a presence on the ground in all but Brunei, Cambodia and Laos (covered through regular accreditation visits).

With ASEAN, Australia and New Zealand have had substantial five year plans of action for many years. These touch on all the areas of importance to ASEAN and where they see benefit in drawing on cooperation with their southern neighbours.

When ASEAN invited friends to accredit Ambassadors to the organization, Australia and New Zealand were among the first to do so. Australia appointed a senior Canberra based official and New Zealand its ambassador in Jakarta, home to the ASEAN Secretariat. Both now have Ambassadors resident in Jakarta focused only on ASEAN (Australia 2013, New Zealand 2014), alongside China, the United States, Korea, Japan and most recently India (other countries manage the relationship through officials with other responsibilities as well). It’s good to see that the EU and Canada will soon also have in place Ambassadors dedicated full time to ASEAN.

ASEAN sits at the centre of regional processes and dialogue in the Asia-Pacific. New Zealand and Australia have been enthusiastic participants in those processes. Australia has at times been more front-footed in terms of pointing out how regionalism might be strengthened. But both Canberra and Wellington welcome the leadership ASEAN shows on regional architecture and issues of the day.

There’s a clear recognition in Wellington and also in Canberra about the importance of being strategic in pursuing closer links with ASEAN.

For example, 2013 saw the release of “New Zealand’s ASEAN Partnership: One Pathway to 10 Nations”, a medium term strategy document aimed at deepening economic engagement.

Last year Australia launched a “New Colombo Plan” which supports young Australians studying and undertaking internships in the region. This will build awareness of and interest in ASEAN among Australia’s next generation and strong connections with ASEAN people and institutions also.

While Australia and New Zealand have worked hard to reach out to and engage with ASEAN, how does the region view its near partners?

As near neighbours with long records of positive engagement, both countries are now viewed as valuable – perhaps even natural – partners. In official ASEAN statements and dialogue, there is ready acknowledgement of the many and varied contributions both countries make in support of ASEAN interests.

This is evident, too, in statements around leadership and ministerial engagement at the bilateral level. A Joint Leaders’ Statement at the Australian 40th anniversary affirmed the importance of the relationship, its elevation to a strategic partnership, and areas for further collaboration. An ASEAN Leaders Summit with New Zealand later this year to celebrate that 40th anniversary should also produce a forward-looking statement.

The concept of partnership shines through more and more in statements and in the work undertaken in different fields, be it a question of trade, investment, development or disaster management. As ASEAN continues to rise, I expect that trend to continue and to strengthen. That comes with expectations of ongoing commitment to the ASEAN agenda and sensitivity to their ambitions and perspectives.

Of course there are differences from time to time on sensitive issues, and sometimes these play out forcefully in the media. More often there are differences of perspective around the speed of an initiative or level of ambition. With its diverse membership and a range of interests to juggle, ASEAN’s position is often complicated.

But on all sides there remains a level of respect for the interests and sensitivities of others, an ability to engage directly (and preferably) in private on tough matters, and to try and explain why perspectives might differ. I believe that in the capitals of South East Asia and in Wellington and Canberra, the long term view is broadly the same: we need each other.

Whether it’s developing, maintaining or enhancing the architecture of the regional and bilateral relationships, all pursue a similarly positive and facilitative approach. If it makes good sense, it will happen.

Engagement in regional and bilateral processes is similar. The heavy flow of leadership and ministerial visits points to a shared wish to progress a wide range of agendas. Strong relationships built up over time at all levels, create trust and confidence. When issues arise, as is inevitable, the aim is to have enough ballast in the hull to enable a righting of the ship relatively quickly.

For ASEAN/South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand, the main relationship themes and operating principles are a commitment to partnership; serious investment in relationships; delivering in areas of shared interest; and mutual respect born of recognition that we do indeed need each other. If it’s not already the case, the countries are well on the way to becoming natural partners.

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