Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reacts as he speaks to delegates during the opening remarks for an Emerging Leaders roundtable during the one-off summit of 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Sydney, Australia, March 16, 2018.      Photo: Pool via Reuters/Rick Rycroft
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reacts as he speaks to delegates during the opening remarks for an Emerging Leaders roundtable during the one-off summit of 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Sydney, Australia, March 16, 2018. Photo: Pool via Reuters/Rick Rycroft

Shared fears over regional geopolitical uncertainties has driven Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) into each other’s embrace. As middle powers, both sides are deeply concerned about China’s revisionist ambitions, America’s protectionist turn, as well as the infiltration of transnational terror groups into the region.

Against this backdrop, Australia and Asean concluded their first-ever special summit (March 16-18) in Sydney, Australia. The high-profile event, which saw the attendance of ten heads of state and government – with the exception of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte – was long in the making.

The United States (Sunnylands 2016) and India (New Delhi 2018) held similar events, even though Australia became Asean’s first dialogue partner more than four decades ago. Nonetheless, the summit reaffirmed Australia’s emergence as an increasingly independent powerbroker in the region, as well as a critical partner for Asean.

At the event, both sides sent an unmistakable message of displeasure with American trade protectionism as well as China’s maritime assertiveness. Far from succumbing to the whims of superpowers, Australia and Asean expressed their commitment to construct, shape and preserve a rules-based order which takes the interests of smaller regional powers into consideration.

In a joint statement, the so-called Sydney Declaration, Australia and Asean reiterated their “support to enhance trade and investment as well as resisting all forms of protectionism to improve regional development and prosperity.”

Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull gestures to Asean leaders in Sydney, March 17, 2018. Photo: Reuters/David Gray

This was a thinly veiled rejection of US President Donald Trump’s administrations’ “America First” protectionist policies, including its opposition to existing and proposed free trade agreements as well as introduction of unilateral tariffs on steel and aluminum imports which has rankled allies across the region.

“Protectionism is a dead end. It is not a ladder to get you out of the low growth trap, it is a shovel to dig it much deeper,” exclaimed Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during the summit. “We must face the world, not turn from it. Embrace free trade, not retreat from it,” he said.

Both sides have a huge interest in maintaining open trading channels. Australia and several Asean countries, namely Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, are part of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP-11), which is expected to move forward despite America’s exit under Trump.

Larger Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and the Philippines have also expressed interest in joining the mega-trade agreement.

Australia is also seeking to deepen the Asean-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, while supportive of the much larger Asean-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes as many as 16 nations across the Asia-Pacific region.

Australia-Asean trade is currently close to A$100 billion (US$77 billion), with investment flows hitting a high of A$225 billion (US$173.5 billion) in 2016. Southeast Asian countries receive as much as 12% of Canberra’s total exports, with as many as 100,000 Southeast Asian students fueling Australia’s education sector.

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy soldiers patrol at Woody Island, in the Paracel Archipelago in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters

Yet China’s rapid militarization of and large-scale reclamation across disputed land features in the South China Sea was also in focus during the summit. In their joint statement, Australia and Asean reiterated “the importance of non-militarization” and “exercise [of] self-restraint” in the disputed waters.

They advocated for a “full and effective implementation” of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) “in its entirety”, while underlining the importance of an “early conclusion of an effective” Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo proposed coordinated joint patrols among Asean countries in the disputed waters, signaling Southeast Asia’s largest nations’ deepening concerns over China’s maritime ambitions in the area.

Australia is also considering the prospect of joining America’s Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the area, while deepening maritime security cooperation other middle powers, particularly Japan and India, which are also concerned with China’s territorial assertiveness.

The two sides also moved ahead with deepening their counter-terrorism cooperation through a memorandum of understanding that aims to institutionalize the sharing of equipment, intelligence and training between Canberra and nearby Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia, both favored destinations for transnational terror groups.

An Australian soldier (back L) supervises Philippine Marines firing their weapons during a demonstration at Military Operation Urbanized Terrain training exercises at Cavite province, December 18, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Australia played a crucial role in aiding the Philippine government’s efforts in liberating the southern Philippine city of Marawi from Islamic State-aligned terror groups last year.

To the surprise of many observers, the Indonesian president also welcomed the prospect of Australia’s “full membership” in the regional body. In response, Canberra enthusiastically said that it would take the idea “very seriously”, presuming other member nations are also on board.

Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating and former Singaporean ambassador to the UN Kishore Mahbubani have long supported the idea. At the least, the two sides are considering the option of an upgraded partnership, potentially in the form of associate membership for Australia, in coming decades.

Australia, along with New Zealand, is concerned about being left behind as “Western” nations in a region that is booming economically. Asean, meanwhile, is looking at ways to boost its heft and draw on Australia’s considerable financial and human resources.

Australia and its Southeast Asian neighbors have long been divided over immigration and human rights issues. Yet an increasingly uncertain geopolitical environment, as well as the allure of deeper economic engagement, is pulling the two closer together than ever.

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