Australia’s regional engagements in East Asia and the Asia Pacific

Dr Frank Frost, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section

Successive Australian governments have placed heavy emphasis on the development of both bilateral relations and multilateral engagements in East Asia and the wider Asia Pacific regions. Most recently, the Rudd Government in 2009 signed the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (following negotiations since 2004), gained Australian entry in 2009 to the Asia-Europe Meetings (ASEM, a dialogue inaugurated in 1996 between Asian states and the European Union to advance inter-regional ties, now involving 49 participants, which Australia will begin attending in October 2010), and promoted discussions on an ‘Asia Pacific community’. Some further developments in regional engagement are now underway.

Regional cooperation in East Asia and the Asia Pacific has confronted many obstacles, including the great diversity of peoples and countries, deep-seated rivalries (for example, Japan and China) and a preference for informality rather than rules-based institutions. Multilateral cooperation has nonetheless enhanced security and development in the past four decades, especially in Southeast Asia. ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is deepening its own integration and has developed forums to coordinate its ten members with Japan, China and South Korea in the ‘ASEAN Plus Three’ process. It also meets at a leadership level with those 13 states along with India, Australia and New Zealand in the East Asia Summit (EAS), and has sponsored security dialogue in the much larger 27 member ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Alongside these groups, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum has pursued many areas of economic and functional cooperation with a diverse membership spanning the Asia Pacific and an annual leaders’ meeting. These and a number of other groupings have all made contributions. However, different states gather in different forums, which operate in parallel and sometimes overlap.

Cooperation efforts are continuing at a time of dynamic change. China’s rapid growth is enhancing its international and regional influence, in economic, political and security terms. While China’s dynamism is fuelling growth across the Asia Pacific, its rising profile and ongoing defence modernisation programs have directed attention towards its future potential policy directions, for example, in the contested areas of the South China Sea, and towards the vital need for constructive relations among all regional parties. The changing regional environment is encouraging states to seek institutions which can include the Asia Pacific major powers (China, Japan, India and the US) to bolster cooperation, help ameliorate potentially dangerous rivalries and avoid conflict. Discussion has accordingly continued on how institutions and processes can best be enhanced to meet these needs.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd sought to add to these discussions in a speech on 4 June 2008 when he declared that the Asia Pacific region needed an institution with wide membership ‘… able to engage in the full spectrum of dialogue, cooperation and action on economic and political matters and future challenges related to security’, to achieve an ‘Asia Pacific community’ by 2020. The proposal met with a mixed response, with support accompanied by criticism, particularly from some ASEAN countries (notably Singapore) on the basis that it appeared to challenge ASEAN’s role at the centre of cooperation efforts and that emphasis should remain on developing existing forums. The Government in response emphasised its recognition of ASEAN’s crucial role in regional cooperation, including its efforts to encourage the US and Russia to deepen their involvement in evolving regional architecture.

Since 2009, other developments have encouraged institutional adaptation. In significant policy moves, the Obama Administration has upgraded US ties with ASEAN by signing ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and holding the first US–ASEAN multilateral leaders meeting in 2009 (with a second meeting to be held in New York in September 2010). It also declared an interest in joining the East Asia Summit. In this climate of reassessment and change, ASEAN is moving to adapt its cooperation efforts in two potentially important ways—and Australia will be involved in both.

Firstly, ASEAN has invited the US and Russia to join the East Asia Summit. The EAS has evolved cautiously since 2005 as a forum for leadership dialogue and broad declarations of purpose, but its profile may rise. An expanded EAS would include all the major powers with interests in East Asia. Secretary of State Clinton declared on 23 July 2010 in Hanoi that the US ‘... will be working with EAS members to encourage its development into a foundational security and political institution for Asia in this century’. It is now expected that the US (along with Russia) will gain entry and that President Obama will attend his first annual Summit in Jakarta in 2011.

Secondly, on 12 October 2010 in Hanoi, ASEAN will host the first ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus Eight. This will bring together the same 18 states which will be members of an expanded EAS, and it will be the first such forum specifically for defence ministers. The Meeting will initially convene once every three years and will need to reach agreement on cooperation agendas. As it develops, the Defence Ministers Meeting could facilitate useful cooperation in areas such as humanitarian and disaster relief as well as security policy dialogue. There is also a pressing need for improved communication among the defence forces of highly armed states, including the US and China.

The character of the next phase in regional cooperation is still emerging and further changes to institutional arrangements may well occur. Nonetheless, if the two new ASEAN-sponsored dialogues of ‘the eighteen’ develop momentum, they can provide significant venues for cooperation on security and other issues at head of government/state and defence minister levels. Australia will have a valuable opportunity to play a role in helping to establish priorities and agendas for constructive dialogue and cooperation programs.

Library publications and key documents

Ralf Emmers and John Ravenhill, The Asian and global financial crises: consequences for East Asian regionalism, RSIS Working Paper no. 208, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, 16 August 2010,

Frank Frost, Australia’s proposal for an ‘Asia Pacific Community’: Issues and prospects, Research paper,
no. 13, 2009–10, Parliamentary Library, Canberra,2009,

Zhu Liqun, Tan Seng Chye, Prapat Thepchatree and Anthony Milner, ‘Regionalism—an Asian conversation: Three Viewpoints’, The Asialink Essays, vol. 2, no. 4, 2010,

Carlyle A. Thayer, Southeast Asia: patterns of security cooperation, ASPI Strategy Report, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Canberra, September 2010 (forthcoming).