Tac Talks: Now is the time for Australia to step up into a leadership role in Southeast Asia to maintain regional peace and prosperity

Tac Talks No. 29
Tac Talks No. 29

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LCDR Sam Fraser



The Southeast Asian region’s move towards growth and prosperity in recent years, while mainly positive, has been far from establishing a Shangri-La. Whilst interstate conflict has been minimal, there are still many political and economic hurdles within both mainland and maritime Southeast Asian states. Since the end of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the region has been enjoying a period of steady growth. In particular, the ten countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been growing at an annual rate of 5% for the last five years.

This constitutes a growth rate higher than that of Europe, Japan and America. Over the past seventy years, Australia has been steadily building economic and security relationships within Southeast Asia. The region is vital to the Australian economy and it encompasses its main area of strategic concern. According to several Defence White Papers, Southeast Asia represents the space in which a hostile power would have to operate ‘from or through’ to threaten the mainland.

The rapid expansion of the Japanese in World War II, along with the regional failure of the British to protect their interests, taught Australia a valuable lesson in foreign affairs. To guarantee its security, Australia was going to have to become a well-informed, more independent participant in its region. Deeper economic relationships and security partnerships would need to be developed, in a region that does not necessarily view Australia as being a part of it. Whilst Australia’s Southeast Asian foreign policy has been developed over the last half of the last century, it was not until the early 2000s that cooperation was raised to a level not seen before through regional concerns of terrorism, climate change, piracy and people smuggling. However, by far the greatest cause for concern has come from an ever-increasing Chinese ‘sphere of influence’. Since the end of World War II, the US has enjoyed hegemony in the region. Nevertheless, this power is waning of late, most notably with the lack of a defined US Asian foreign policy from the Trump administration leaving a potential gaping hole. Cooperating with and fostering the development of Southeast Asian nations to contribute to a stable balance of power in Asia has become essential to the growth and stability of Australia.

Australia has a thought-provoking choice to make. Will it engage Southeast Asia on a deeper level and take on a leadership role to maintain regional peace and prosperity? On the other hand, will it be content in being a regional small power, playing a less influential part in the affairs of the region? In this paper, I intend on addressing this question and arguing that whilst Australia has contributed significantly to Southeast Asian diplomacy since the turn of the century, there is still much to be done. I intend on doing so by first exploring why Southeast Asia matters to Australia and how the region has come to be one of the focuses of Australia’s foreign policy. I then intend on investigating how Australia interacts with the local region through forums such as ASEAN and the Shangri-La dialogue. In addition, how it could be engaging further to contribute to these forums and the regional balance of power. I will then seek to discuss a regional success story for Australia, the Five Powers Defence Agreement (FPDA) and how that could be used as an example of what Australian leadership can achieve.

Why does Southeast Asia matter to Australia?


In 1992, the then Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Gareth Evans gave a speech to the Australian Institute of Company Directors in which he outlined his belief that Asia had become the region in which Australia should look to, to best guarantee its future prosperity. This speech was seen as a significant moment for Australia’s regional foreign affairs and it highlighted the importance that the government at the time was placed on building future Southeast Asian relationships. However, this did not immediately translate to defence diplomacy. In that era, Australia was more concerned with shifting the focus of their Defence Forces from forwarding defence, into a more self-reliant strategy bent on the Defence of Australia. It took a further twenty years for Julia Gillard’s 2012 White Paper Australia and the Asian Century to begin to highlight the importance of the region. However, it was not until the 2013 Defence White Paper that the importance was raised significantly. The paper incorporated a categorical shift “towards identifying Australia’s region of strategic interest” as Southeast Asia. According to Rod Lyon of The Strategist, this was the moment that “Australia finally turned the corner in its (strategic) thinking” and that Southeast Asia loomed ‘as the new player in (Australia’s) strategic landscape”. Further investigation of the 2013 paper indicates that the rise of India and in particular China as key regional strategic actors were the considerable motivation for this shift.

Since 2012, Australia has made considerable efforts to broaden our engagement with countries of Southeast Asia both bilaterally and multilaterally. However, what is the main driver behind this push? Adam Lockyer for one believes that it “is in Australia’s strategic interest” to engage further with Southeast Asia by ensuring “that continental South-East Asia does not fall under the control of a single great power” as “a single power would pose a direct threat to the Indo-Pacific Arc and Australia”. Lockyer supposes that engaging in the multipolar regional order, will counter the possibility of one great power gaining control. The hope for Australia is that any overt aggression would be able to be countered by the varying alliances and security partnerships and as such, Australia continues to have a vital role to play.

Furthermore, it is argued by Michael Wesley that Australia’s foreign policy in Southeast Asia has been ‘animated by a hope and a fear. The fear is that Australia becomes shut out of the region diplomatically, strategically and economically by exclusive regionalism, or to put it more simply, that we are not Asian enough. Kishore Mahbubani, the ASEAN intellectual expands on this fear and states that the main issue confronting Australia and Southeast Asia is the clash in the cultural dimension, Australia is too westernised. To counter this, Wesley hopes that the area will continue to develop by being incorporated and invested in the global economy and that this will help maintain quasi-Western values. Australia, as the region’s foremost Western democratic society, has a large role to play in making sure that the fear does not manifest into reality and that the hope is nurtured into being. However, the fear is surely easily overcome and one way to do so is to grow our regional connections through collaborations and partnerships that slowly develop mutual trust and understanding. Australia understands that the continuing development of Southeast Asian regionalism through institutions such as ASEAN, the FPDA and the Shangri La Dialogue will benefit all by encouraging cooperation and development whilst also allaying fears of a great power taking over and creating a ‘sphere of influence’.

The Southeast Asian way


Since the turn of the century, the global threat of terrorism and the economic and military rise of China have provided Australia with an opportunity to engage with Southeast Asia in ways that were not possible in the past. We have been allowed into the Southeast Asian inner sanctum. The current Australian Government has shown that it is intent on nurturing a deeper Southeast Asian relationship, by engaging in the region through both bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. This diplomacy has recently included a $730 million development program to the countries of ASEAN and by further cooperating with these states in counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, maritime cooperation, education and disaster management.

(Click to enlarge)
(Click to enlarge)

With a population of 620 million, and a GDP of $US 2.5 trillion the ten countries of ASEAN make up Australia’s second-largest trading partner. As a ten-member political community, ASEAN represents a formidable presence in Asia. Australia has had a longstanding relationship with ASEAN and was the first non-Southeast Asian country to establish a joint relationship. Nevertheless, whilst security has been the focus of some of the ASEAN developed forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting, Australia’s main talks with ASEAN have tended to be about economics. Whilst holding many common security beliefs, such as the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the security collaboration between ASEAN and Australia could be a lot stronger.

The security collaboration of ASEAN as a whole could be stronger. ASEAN has at times been maligned in its inability to take action through its ‘non-interference policy (most notably in the South China Sea). The timing could not be better for Australia to stand up as a regional leader, drive that cooperation, and in doing so emerge as the regions ‘pillar of stability. In 2018 Australia will, for the first time, host an ASEAN-Australia leaders’ summit. Whilst this is a good sign of Australia’s proactivity, there is much more that needs to be done before this can be successful. By developing their leadership role further, Australia should use the opportunity to break down some of the bureaucracy that hampers ASEAN’s security challenges and encourage the nations to participate in a freer exchange of ideas. To achieve this Australia needs to initiate more bilateral talks with ASEAN nations, such as Vietnam. Australia needs to think deeper about how they want the regional future to look. Penny Wong, Australia’s Shadow Foreign Minister, reiterates this when she writes that Australia needs a better “road map in Asia” and that to do so, it is critical we get it right with ASEAN.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the 2017 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Asia Security Summit.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the 2017 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Asia Security Summit.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Asia Security Summit, Shangri-La Dialogue is another forum that Australia uses to engage with Asia. The Shangri-La dialogue is one of the region’s highest-level security forums, which includes participation from over 30 countries including all Southeast Asian states and importantly China, India and the US. The dialogue takes place annually in Singapore and was founded in 2002 by the British think tank IISS with the support of the Singaporean government. In 2016, the rest of the world used this forum to advocate the rules-based order, paying particular attention to the South China Sea noting the upcoming International Court of Arbitration decision on China and the Philippines. This summit also included a speech from the US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter in which he called for a “principled security network” of like-minded countries, seemingly in a call for Southeast Asian countries to band together to hedge against Chinese influence. For the first time in the summit’s history, there was no Australian Defence Minister present and Australia missed a prime opportunity to influence this summit and to show their solidarity with the countries of Southeast Asia by proving their resolve for the rules-based order.

Reciprocally, in what seemed to be an obvious drive for regional influence, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull gave a keynote speech to the 2017 summit in which he spoke of Australia’s vision for the region. He spoke optimistically of how Australia’s strategic policy is grown out of ‘ambition, not anxiety’ and expressed a vision of a multipolar Asia that must work together for the common good by encouraging globalisation and how this should all be done under the framework of the rules-based international order. This was an opportunity taken by Australia to reframe and justify its engagement with Asia and a good example of how Australia sees its role developing in the region. However, this is just one speech and relations with some Southeast Asian countries remain relatively superficial. When was the last time the Prime Minister visited countries such as Vietnam or Thailand for bilateral talks?

Conversely, the often-overlooked security agreement, the FPDA, is a mark of regional success and is an example of how significant Australian leadership can benefit not only the security of the member states but the entire region. Established in 1971 the FPDA is an agreement between the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore that was borne from the rapid British decolonization of Southeast Asia and the threat to Malaysia and Singapore from the Indonesian Konfrantasi. The agreement states that the five powers are to ‘consult’ each other in the event of an armed attack on Malaysia or Singapore to decide what measures should be taken, be it a joint or separate response. The FPDA is ‘arguably the oldest institutional expression of defence diplomacy in Southeast Asia today and has been a key enabler in keeping Australia engaged in regional security matters. According to the joint statement after the 10th Defence Ministers meeting, the FPDA “contributes to peace and security in Southeast Asia” by playing a “vital confidence-building role”.

The agreement includes an Integrated Air Defence System to protect Malaysia and Singapore that is run out of RMAF Butterworth (previously RAAF Butterworth). This has always been and continues to be commanded by a RAAF officer, giving an important leadership role whilst also providing Australia with a forward defence presence in South East Asia. Another advantage is the joint military exercises that are conducted each year between the five states.

These exercises encourage interoperability and provide significant training benefits to the Australian Defence Force and as such, it contributes the most forces out of the three extra-regional states. Moreover, according to Tim Huxley the executive director of the IISS, Australia contributes the most diplomatically out of the extra-regional states. By engaging to this level, Australia has been successful in helping create a non-provocative environment and can hedge against the potential rise of regional power.



Australia has a large role to play in the future of Southeast Asia and should be looking to deepen its relationships within it. The region has such a great significance to both the economy and the security of Australia that not doing so should be seen as the failure to take an opportunity not often afforded. Australia needs to make the most of every diplomatic opportunity and take on the extra responsibility of regional middle power to show that it is deeply engaged in the region’s future. Whilst actively involved in institutions such as ASEAN and security forums such as the Shangri-La Dialogue, Australia needs to do deepen its involvement with these institutions and should use the example of their role within the FPDA as an illustration of how the region can benefit from their leadership, guidance and stability. With the regional threats of terrorism, climate change, resource scarcity and the continual shifting of regional power, the timing is perfect for Australia to elevate its commitment and contribute as a leader to a stable balance of power in Southeast Asia.


  1. ‘More Money, Less Freedom: South-East Asia’s Future Looks Prosperous but Illiberal’, economist.com, Jul 22 2017, https://www.economist.com/news/asia/21725168-democracy-losing-ground-even-region-grows-richer-south-east-asias-future-looks-prosperous.
  2. Michael Wesley, ‘Rebuilding Engagement: Australia and South-East Asia’, in Trading On Alliance Security: Australia in World Affairs 2001-2005, 1st ed. (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2007), 53-71.
  3. See 2009, 2013, 2016 Defence White Papers.
  4. ‘Australia’s Economic Engagement with Asia’, Address by Senator Gareth Evans, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, to the Australian Institute of Company Directors, March 27, 1992, Sydney. (www.gevans.org/speeches/old/1992/270392_fm_auseconomicengage.pdf)
  5. Department of Defence, The Defence of Australia (Canberra: Australian Government, 1987).
  6. Government of Australia, Australia in The Asian Century (Canberra: Government of Australia, 2012). Pii
  7. Rory Medcalf, ‘In Defence of the Indo-Pacific: Australia's New Strategic Map’, Australian Journal of International Affairs 68, no. 4 (2014): 470-483, doi:10.1080/10357718.2014.911814.
  8. Rod Lyon, ‘The Southeast Asian Emphasis in DWP2013’, The Strategist, June 21, 2013, https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-southeast-asian-emphasis-in-dwp2013/.
  9. Adam Lockyer, Australia’s Defence Strategy: Evaluating Alternatives for a Contested Asia, 1st ed. (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2017): p 232.
  10. Michael Wesley, ‘Rebuilding Engagement: Australia and South-East Asia’, p 54
  11. Graeme Dobell, ‘Australia into ASEAN: The ASEAN ‘YES’’, aspistrategist.org.au, 2017, https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australia-into-asean-the-asean-yes/.
  12. Michael Wesley, ‘Rebuilding Engagement: Australia and South-East Asia’, p 54
  13. Julie Bishop, 50th Anniversary of ASEAN, 2017, https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/julie-bishop/speech/50th-anniversary-asean.
  14. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), http://dfat.gov.au/international-relations/regional-architecture/asean/Pages/association-of-southeast-asian-nations-asean, 2017.
  15. Frank Frost, ASEAN’s Regional Cooperation and Multilateral Relations: Recent Developments and Australia’s Interests (Canberra: Department of Parliamentary Services, 2008).
  16. Margaret Goydych and Rhea Matthews, ‘The Growing Importance of The ASEAN-Australia Relationship - Australian Institute of International Affairs’, Australian Institute of International Affairs, 2017, http://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/the-growing-importance-of-the-asean-australia-relationship/.
  17. Huong Le Thu, ‘ASEAN and Australia Beyond 50 - Asia and The Pacific - ANU’, asiapacific.anu.edu.au, 2017, http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/news-events/all-stories/asean-and-australia-beyond-50.
  18. Penny Wong, ‘Australia and ASEAN: The Next 50 Years’, lowyinstitute.org, 2017, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/australia-and-asean-next-50-years.
  19. Prashanth Parameswaran, ‘US Hits Right Note at Shangri-La with Principled Security Network’, The Diplomat, 2017, http://thediplomat.com/2016/06/us-hits-right-note-at-shangri-la-with-principled-security-network/.
  20. Rory Medcalf, ‘Shangri-La Dialogue: Australia Missed Chance to Shape Vital Maritime Debate’, Financial Review, 2016, http://www.afr.com/news/world/asia/shangrila-dialogue-australia-failed-to-play-full-role-in-vital-maritime-debate-20160605-gpbvf2.
  21. Malcolm Turnbull, in Keynote Address 16th IISS Asia Security Summit, Shangri-La Dialogue, (2017), https://www.pm.gov.au/media/2017-06-02/keynote-address-16th-iiss-asia-security-summit-shangri-la-dialogue.
  22. Damon Bristow, ‘The Five Power Defence Arrangements: Southeast Asia’s Unknown Regional Security Organization’, Contemporary Southeast Asia 27, no. 1 (2005): 1-20, doi:10.1355/cs27-1a.
  23. Ralf Emmers, ‘The Five Power Defence Arrangements and Defence Diplomacy in Southeast Asia’, Asian Security 8, no. 3 (2012): 271-286, doi:10.1080/14799855.2012.723921.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Graeme Dobell, ‘The Durian Pact: The Five Power Defence Arrangements’, aspistrategist.org.au, 2017, https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/durian-pact-five-power-defence-arrangements/.
  26. Tim Huxley, ‘The Future Of The Five Power Defence Arrangements’, aspistrategist.org.au, 2012, https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-future-of-the-five-power-defence-arrangements/.