Australia’s Coming Southeast Asia Litmus Test in the Spotlight
Plus measuring US-China competition; Singapore's artificial intelligence inroads and more.
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This week’s WonkCount: 2835 words (approximately 13 minutes).
Australia’s Coming Southeast Asia Litmus Test in the Spotlight with Foreign Minister Speech
Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s reiteration of Southeast Asia as a major priority of Canberra’s foreign policy comes ahead of a key few months in ties, with her government set to roll out new initiatives for the region and Australia and ASEAN set to mark 50 years of dialogue relations in 2024.
What’s Behind It
Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong reaffirmed that engaging ASEAN and its members is a “core priority” of her government in a speech to the National Press Club. Wong, the country’s first foreign-born foreign minister who is of Malaysian descent, noted that Canberra is making progress on previously announced initiatives, and that, in one tangible illustration of the importance of the region, she would have visited every country in Southeast Asia as foreign minister except Myanmar by the first anniversary of her government.
The speech spotlights the Albanese government’s effort at a more comprehensive approach to Southeast Asia within its overall Indo-Pacific approach. Wong repeated the notion of countries shaping a “strategic equilibrium” that she had also expanded on during an address to the IISS in Singapore last July as a way to reframe Southeast Asia as not just a theater of major power competition, but a region with middle and smaller powers with agency that, with partners like Australia, can seek to navigate a period of regional change by shaping the regional order and making choices about alignments and partnerships. She also highlighted the centrality of economics to Australia’s approach.
Why It Matters
Wong’s speech comes during a key year in Albanese government’s development of ties with Southeast Asia. Wong’s points such as the agency of smaller states and the centrality of economics speak more directly to the comprehensive needs of Southeast Asian states than a narrower security-focused prism on U.S.-China rivalry alone. But it also puts attention on the balancing act Canberra faces in shaping ties with Southeast Asia and Pacific Island states even as it furthers the U.S.-Australia alliance and alignments like AUKUS and the Quad. It also adds more pressure on Australia to deliver on resourcing its own approach, including the planned release of its Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040 later this year following the expiry of the deadline for written submissions on March 31.
More broadly, her remarks come ahead of a few active months for Australia foreign policy which will be revealing in terms of where Southeast Asia fits in. Of particular note is the fact that Albanese will have an opportunity to more clearly define Australia’s outlook during his upcoming keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June in Singapore, the first keynote delivered by an Australian prime minister since Malcolm Turnbull in 2017. This comes after a busy few weeks where he will be, among other things, attending the inauguration of King Charles III, participating in the G-7 summit, hosting the Quad Summit and handing down the country’s annual budget.
Where It’s Headed
Looking ahead, how Australia seeks to develop ties with individual Southeast Asian countries will be key to watch to add depth to Canberra’s approach. Regionally, Australia along with China were the first two countries to elevate their ties with ASEAN to the highest tier of a comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP) in 2021. Bilaterally, there is some promise in certain relationships, such as Vietnam where there is already speculation on the timing of an elevation to a CSP following South Korea’s last year, or the Philippines which has reemerged as a node within Indo-Pacific security networking under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Yet some ties are not without challenges or limits, as evidenced by the ongoing crisis in Myanmar or reservations expressed by countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia on the AUKUS agreement.
Preparations for ASEAN-Australia commemorative activities in 2024 could also add a further push to potential gains in ties at the regional level under the Albanese government. Australia had previously suggested that Australia and ASEAN convene a special summit to commemorate their 50th anniversary, and the last time both sides held a special summit was in Sydney back in 2018. Concretizing gains will also carry additional significance in 2024 given that Australia is expected to hold an election during (or perhaps before) 2025, and, like other democratic dialogue partners like the United States, there will be questions around sustainability of Canberra’s approach. Indeed, Wong’s speech itself attempted to stake out a calibrated approach that both directly criticized aspects of the policy approach adopted by the Scott Morrison government for the lack of resourcing for aspects of diplomacy and development, but also steered clear of the approach advocated by former premier Paul Keating articulated recently also at the National Press Club in March calling for a more accommodating approach towards China and caution on the pursuit of AUKUS.
Measuring US-China Southeast Asia Competition; Malaysia’s “Political Minefield” Challenge; Assessing Vietnam’s Shifting Alignments
“In terms of measures of influence, China is more influential economically than the United States…but Washington’s defense networks continue to far outstrip those of Beijing. And while China has a considerable lead over the United States in diplomatic influence…Washington’s cultural influence, gained via media reach and people-to-people connections, remains higher than Beijing’s,” notes a snapshot on U.S.-China competition in Southeast Asia from the Lowy Institute’s Power Index. There are more findings by category and country, including that Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia and Brunei are among the countries where Washington has the biggest influence gaps relative to Beijing (see figure above); and Washington has lost the most influence in Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia relative to 2018. There are also additional notes on methodology for those looking to dig in even more, including how subcategories are weighted.
“It is a political minefield,” a participant at an internal Malaysian ruling party session is quoted as saying in an article on the subject of the country trying to manage the political economy dynamics of troubled government-linked companies (GLCs) that dominate the country’s economy, which have affected Malaysia’s foreign relations in myriad ways over the decades. You can read the full piece on how the issue is being handled under Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s government, published at Channel NewsAsia, here.
“[H]eightened tensions between Russia and the West have rendered Vietnam’s geopolitical promiscuity…increasingly harder to attain,” argues an article on Hanoi’s pursuit of its multidirectional foreign policy published in the latest issue of Southeast Asian Affairs. The article also assesses some other aspects of Vietnam’s evolving foreign policy approach, such as sectoral dichotomies in the political and economic domains and the rising challenges for Vietnamese policymakers and their worldviews.