Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull takes a selfie with a delegate during during a summit event with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Sydney, March 16, 2018. Photo: Pool via Reuters/Mark Metcalfe
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull takes a selfie with a delegate during during a summit event with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Sydney, March 16, 2018. Photo: Pool via Reuters/Mark Metcalfe

Australia has shown it is happy to stay in the middle ground between economic partner China and security ally the United States as it edges closer to a surprising centrist alliance with Southeast Asian countries.

The upshot is that Canberra may not need to choose a partner in Asia’s swirling superpower pirouette; but it should remember that one also needs a fine sense of balance to sit on the fence for long periods, particularly as great power rivalry heats up in the region.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull strode carefully down the median strip as host of a summit with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Sydney over the weekend, speaking glowingly of Australia’s “commitment to the centrality of Asean and our commitment … to Asean at the very heart of the stability, prosperity, security of our region.”

Perhaps more tellingly, Turnbull said his country was “fully committed to backing Asean as the strategic convenor of our region”, which will give US President Donald Trump something to ponder as he tries to assemble an alliance against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and Chinese expansionism.

Successive Australian governments have never been quite sure how to handle Asean, which has been both an asset and an irritant in foreign policies. Australia became the bloc’s first dialogue partner in 1974, but did not accede to the signature Treaty of Amity and Cooperation for another three decades because it was afraid of upsetting close Western allies.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the Australia-Asean summit in Sydney, Australia, March 17, 2018. Photo: Pool via Reuters/Mark Metcalfe

Now the dialogue is about whether Australia should actually join Asean. Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who has been a frequent critic in the past of Canberra’s actions, caused a stir by endorsing Australia’s membership credentials, “because our region will be better, [for] stability, economic stability and also political stability. Sure, it will be better.”

Not so strange when one recalls that Asean was last expanded (in the 1990s) expressly to counter China’s influence, even if two of the four newcomers — Cambodia and Laos — still fell into its orb. Like Australia, Asean needs friends in the region, and the field is limited.

The biggest criticism of Australia joining Asean, apart from the obvious fact that it isn’t in Southeast Asia, has been its habit of shooting from the mouth over human rights issues, which doesn’t sit well with the bloc’s insular insistence on not interfering in the domestic affairs of members.

There was plenty of fuel for the fire in Sydney, but only a slow burn. Cambodia’s Hun Sen stared down a crowd protesting over his persecution of political rivals ahead of his country’s July general election, vowing to “beat” them and “shame” Australia unless they all went home. (Hun Sen didn’t lash anyone, in the end, nor did they leave.)

Protesters hold banners during a demonstration against Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Australia-Asean summit in Sydney, March 16, 2018. Photo: Reuters/David Gray

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte did stay home to avoid a backlash over his war on drugs campaign, which may have killed as many as 12,000 people according to rights group estimates. An inquiry into the killings is pending in the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s critics were sitting on the same rostrum. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak interrupted a speech on counterterrorism to accuse Myanmar’s de facto leader of neglecting the 700,000 Muslim Rohingya who have been forced to flee to Bangladesh to avoid military persecution.

Events were so bad, Najib said, that it was no longer a domestic matter. Muslim majority Malaysia has provided shelter to tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have arrived by boat.

Displaying remarkable restraint, Turnbull followed Asean’s script by doing most of his talking in private. He raised the Rohingya issue after the summit with Suu Kyi, who had stayed behind for an official visit, and earlier helped put together a regional aid package for the refugees.

Canberra also sidestepped debate on North Korea and China, the region’s other two potential flash-points, though there was plenty of talking that took place in the corridors and in bilateral meetings.

Indonesia’s Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi with Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defense Minister Marise Payne in Sydney, Australia, March 16, 2018. Photo: Pool via Reuters/William West

The final summit communique backed a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and the “freedom of navigation and overflight in the region”, but did not specifically mention China.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop took it one step further when declaring that Australia rejects “any unilateral action that would create tensions” in the waterway, which makes it unlikely her country will join the US and Great Britain in sending naval vessels to test China’s 12-mile territorial zone in the sea.

To be sure, Australia won’t be in any rush to join Asean, as it is not yet ready to surrender its unilateral positions on economic affairs to a regional body. There is already a lot being achieved at a dialogue level, with the summit stepping up cooperation on anti-terrorism, security issues like the prevention of cyber-attacks, infrastructure development and smart city technologies.

Asean’s founding principles would also need to be changed to allow membership for a country located outside its immediate catchment area. But there is common ground for a centrist movement that can act as a counterweight to both China and the US, even if it is rooted partly in a shared fear of having to choose between the two.

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