The 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit

28 February 2024

PDF Version [783KB]

Dr Vu Lam
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security

Executive summary

  • The 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit marks 50 years of partnership and underscores the evolving relationship between Australia and ASEAN nations amidst a changing global landscape. This follows the 2018 Special Summit and signals a deepening commitment to regional collaboration.
  • Heightened tensions between the US and China, unresolved security concerns (including those in the South China Sea and the ongoing crisis in Myanmar), and emerging threats like climate change and cybersecurity may heavily influence the summit’s discussions.
  • ASEAN nations have navigated the US-China rivalry strategically, aiming to maintain positive relationships with both major powers while also diversifying partnerships. This dynamic creates both challenges and potential opportunities for smaller regional players.
  • ASEAN centrality remains a fundamental principle in ASEAN-Australia relations, emphasising ASEAN’s central role in a rules-based Indo-Pacific regional architecture, a stance consistently supported by Australia.
  • The 2024 summit will facilitate collaboration in several key areas: strengthening defence and security partnerships; furthering economic integration through regional agreements; exploring technology cooperation; combating climate change with clean energy solutions; and promoting cross-cultural exchange.


The upcoming ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, scheduled for 4–6 March 2024 in Melbourne, is set to mark a significant milestone in ASEAN-Australia relations, celebrating 50 years since Australia became ASEAN’s first Dialogue Partner and established official bilateral relations. This event, the second of its kind hosted by Australia following the first Special Summit in 2018, reflects a deepening of ties and a commitment to jointly addressing regional challenges and opportunities.

This Research Paper provides an overview of the evolving context around ASEAN-Australia relations leading up to the 2024 Special Summit, setting the stage for the summit’s agenda.

A brief history of bilateral relations

Founded in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has expanded to include 10 member states, welcoming Brunei in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999. ASEAN occupies a pivotal position in Asian economic integration, demonstrating resilience through crises such as the 1997 financial turmoil and the 2008 global recession. By 2022, it had established itself as the world’s fifth-largest economy. The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), created in 1992, stands among the world’s most extensive free trade areas, encompassing a population by 2023 that exceeds 679 million.

Australia’s official relations with ASEAN started in 1974. Since then, bilateral relations have been formalised through various mechanisms, including the signing of the Agreement Establishing the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA) in 2010, a Strategic Partnership in 2014, and a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) in 2021. Australia has also been an active participant in ASEAN-led platforms, being a founding member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) since its inception in 1994 and of the East Asia Summit (EAS) established in 2005. Furthermore, Australia participates in the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) to strengthen security and defence cooperation. Most recently, Australia joined the ASEAN-Indo-Pacific Forum (AIPF) launched in September 2023.

A more detailed history of bilateral relations can be found in the 2018 Parliamentary Library research paper, The ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, Sydney, March 2018: issues and implications.

The 2018 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit

The 2018 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, held in Sydney on 17–18 March, commemorated the evolving strategic partnership between Australia and ASEAN, culminating in the Sydney Declaration, which set objectives for future cooperation. The summit was the first time ASEAN leaders convened in Australia. Leading up to the Special Summit were a Business Summit and a Counter-Terrorism Conference, reflecting the summit‘s central themes of partnering for regional security and prosperity.

As per the Sydney Declaration, ASEAN and Australian leaders agreed to further cooperation in addressing transnational crime, terrorism, and maritime security concerns, with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on Counter-Terrorism to implement the 2016 ASEAN-Australia Joint Declaration for Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism. Both sides also committed to enhancing trade and investment ties, with a focus on developing infrastructure, fostering innovation, and promoting digital connectivity. Specifically, both sides resolved to conclude the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade agreement involving the 10 ASEAN members, and China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

People-to-people links were also featured, with both sides aiming to promote education, cultural exchange, and youth engagement with a view to strengthening the partnership and fostering long-term relationships.

The shifting global landscape

The global and regional stage has shifted dramatically since the 2018 Special Summit. The simmering US-China rivalry, including the ‘trade war‘ starting in 2018, now dominates the Indo-Pacific. Economic tensions escalated with the implementation of tariffs and allegations of intellectual property theft. Both countries have invested and competed heavily in semiconductor technology. Geopolitical friction has intensified over competing claims in the South China Sea (SCS) and US military support for Taiwan, while China’s expanding influence in the Indo-Pacific has raised concerns. Cybersecurity issues have added to the mix, and human rights concerns have emerged regarding the Uyghur population in Xinjiang and the aftermath of the 2019–20 protests in Hong Kong.

The global security landscape faces not only persistent traditional threats, but also a growing list of emerging challenges with multifaceted implications. To name but a few, the potential for conflict and increased resource scarcity due to climate change is a significant and pressing concern. Pandemics and potential bio-threats, as evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, expose vulnerabilities in global health systems. Disinformation and the potential misuse of AI have prompted significant apprehension about the erosion of trust and democratic processes, and incited heated debate about autonomous weapons.

The socio-economic landscape has shifted from steady growth to global uncertainties. China’s 2023 economic growth rate was reportedly the lowest in decades and global supply chains have faced a tangled web of disruptions. Besides lingering effects from the pandemic, ongoing challenges include trade tensions, labour shortages and climate events. Armed conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza, and the broader Red Sea region have raised the alarm about potential disruptions to sea traffic, supply chains, and the risk of cascading humanitarian crises, including mass displacements and refugee flows. All of this disrupts established trade routes, hinders resource access, and brings uncertainty for businesses. Meanwhile, the digital revolution is rapidly reshaping economies, requiring extensive investment in infrastructure and skills development.

The evolving regional landscape

In recent years, Southeast Asia (SEA) has been faced with several ongoing and emerging challenges.

The US-China rivalry has played out across multiple spheres. In economics, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has propelled China to become the region’s leading infrastructure development partner, with reservations from some countries, like Vietnam and the Philippines, which are seeking a diversified pool of partners. The US has sought to provide alternatives, such as the Mekong-US Partnership, and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Having been in negotiation between the US and 13 other countries since 2022, IPEF has 4 pillars, including trade, supply chains, clean energy and fair economy. The US and China have also intensified the competition for technological supremacy.

In terms of security, China has asserted its territorial claims in the SCS through increased military activities, prompting the US to respond with Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) and strengthened partnerships with SEA nations. The SCS disputes remain unresolved, with territorial claims and militarisation leading to a sharp rise in maritime incidents and stoking fears of a potential flashpoint.

In light of new tensions in the SCS, the Philippines seems to take a tougher stance and shift away from China, especially with the US publicly supporting this approach. But that does not automatically translate into closer ties with the US, as shown by metrics like official development assistance (ODA). Instead, other regional players like Japan and multilateral lenders like the Asian Development Bank and World Bank have become the Philippines’s biggest partners in areas such as infrastructure. Across ASEAN, these regional players are gradually matching pace with China in terms of ODA.

Apart from challenges, the escalating US-China rivalry also presents regional countries with opportunities. As both superpowers seek stronger economic ties within SEA, several ASEAN members, such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have reaped benefits from the deeper integration into global supply chains and attracted greater foreign investment. Japan (as of 2023) has become the third largest source of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), after the US and intra-ASEAN FDI.

Southeast Asia’s strategic significance becomes elevated in the eyes of the US and China as they seek to counterbalance each other’s regional influence. Both powers have leveraged diplomatic channels, especially by pursuing CSPs with ASEAN and regional countries. In recent years, China has signed CSPs with ASEAN (2021) and Timor-Leste (2023). The US has done the same with ASEAN in 2022 and both Vietnam and Indonesia in 2023. The competition may grant additional bargaining power to ASEAN when securing beneficial trade agreements. The potential for greater market access and an influx of technology from both major powers could bolster regional economies.

The US-China rivalry presents SEA countries with a delicate balancing act. ASEAN and its members have largely employed hedging strategies, seeking to maintain good relationships with both major powers while diversifying their strategic partners. Yet, more subtly, some have shown differentiation in navigating and potentially benefiting from this competition. Generally speaking, the impact of the rivalry on countries varies based on factors such as economic structure, trade relationships, geopolitical alignments, technological dependencies, financial interconnections and policy responses. For instance, Cambodia and Laos have increasingly embraced the BRI, while Vietnam has erred on the cautious side. In the context of the US-China trade and technological decoupling, smaller states like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar may face challenges due to the lack of resources, risking over-dependence on foreign investment. Conversely, Vietnam’s strategic positioning has made it one of the greatest beneficiaries of the trade war, elevating its rankings in global supply chains, especially with production and investment shifting from China to Southeast Asia. In 2023, besides the CSP with the US, Vietnam also upgraded its relations with Japan to a CSP and agreed to jointly build a ‘Vietnam-China community with a shared future’. These moves reflect Vietnam’s desire to foster cooperation with its key partners while maintaining a non-aligned stance.

Besides the SCS disputes, the Myanmar crisis since 2021 has underscored the varied responses within ASEAN. On one side, there are nations within the bloc advocating for a more robust stance against Myanmar‘s military government, suggesting that firmer measures could encourage the junta to engage in constructive dialogue and adhere to human rights norms. Conversely, countries like Laos, which is chairing ASEAN in 2024, have accentuated the importance of dialogue and engagement, proposing a ‘Myanmar-owned and led solution’ to the crisis. Though some observers predict the junta’s imminent collapse, the situation in Myanmar remains volatile and fluid. The recent escalation of violence has displaced an estimated 800,000 people since October 2023, pushing them towards refuge in Thailand and India. The Five-Point Consensus (5PC), enacted by ASEAN in 2021 to address the Myanmar crisis, has seen little progress in ending violence or establishing dialogue.

Non-traditional threats such as terrorism, piracy, and transnational crime continue to pose challenges, demanding regional collaboration. The increasing sophistication of cyberattacks threatens critical infrastructure and regional stability, resulting in the formulation of various collaborative frameworks.

In that context, the Quad (US, India, Japan, Australia) and AUKUS (US, UK, Australia) security initiatives raise complex considerations for ASEAN-Australia relations. On the positive side, they align with ASEAN’s vision for the Indo-Pacific – emphasising a peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and rules-based order – and potentially offer opportunities for cooperation in areas like maritime security, counterterrorism and disaster relief. However, concerns exist within ASEAN about the  impact of these initiatives, especially AUKUS, on regional stability and inclusivity. Key anxieties include potential undermining of ASEAN centrality, nuclear proliferation risks, and heightened regional tensions.

Amidst this complexity, ASEAN member states, especially under Indonesia’s chairmanship in 2023, have committed to strengthening regional institutions and upholding ASEAN centrality. This concept, broadly speaking, depicts ASEAN as ‘the dominant regional platform to overcome common challenges and engage with external powers’. ASEAN centrality has been a core principle of bilateral relations, which was confirmed at the previous summit. In September 2023, the ASEAN-Indo-Pacific Forum (AIPF) was launched in Jakarta, serving as a central platform to implement the ASEAN Outlook for the Indo-Pacific, and aiming to address global challenges and geopolitical rivalries. It focuses on 3 key areas: green infrastructure and resilient supply chains; maritime security and cooperation; and sustainable development and digital transformation. Also in September 2023, ASEAN conducted the first-ever ASEAN-only joint military exercise, codenamed ASEAN Solidarity Exercise 2023 (ASEX 2023).

Acknowledging the growing importance of ASEAN to the regional architecture and Australia, the Australian Government has always maintained its support for ASEAN centrality. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, speaking at the launch of the AIPF, emphasised:

The centrality of ASEAN is of utmost importance for Australia, we share the same trust in this region. ASEAN is Australia’s economic destiny. We are building upon a strong foundation, and there is still untapped potential.

Critics often point to ASEAN’s lack of strong institutional mechanisms and its members’ divergent interests and priorities as fundamental challenges to collective decision-making and regional policies. Yet, proponents of ASEAN centrality argue that the bloc is effective as the centre of the region’s diplomatic network, rather than as the driving forces behind the region’s geopolitical or economic dynamics.

The progressive bilateral landscape

Looking back, many of the objectives set out in the 2018 summit have been met. Australia and ASEAN members have strengthened defence-security collaboration, as seen in joint military exercises, information sharing and capacity building and training.

Economically, ASEAN-Australia relations have been progressively robust and mutually beneficial. In 2022, the total 2-way trade between Australia and ASEAN reached A$178 billion, exceeding Australia’s trade with major partners like the US, Japan, and the EU. This number represents an increase of nearly 47% compared to 2018. Australia’s FDI flow to ASEAN in 2022 accounted for A$106 billion. All of this emphasises the economic vitality of the relationship and showcases the benefits of AANZFTA.

The 2021 CSP brings into focus new areas of collaboration in renewable energy, climate change mitigation, and the circular economy. Notably, the RCEP was finalised in 2020 and came into force in January 2022 for the 10 original parties, including Australia, creating the largest trade bloc in the world, accounting for about 30% of the world’s population and 30% of global GDP.

As the 2024 Special Summit draws closer, several notable political and security developments have impacted ASEAN, which may influence the summit’s agenda. Notably, Indonesia is poised to complete the first round of its general elections to select a new president following President Widodo’s 10 years in office. As Indonesia occupies a leading role within ASEAN and remains a key strategic partner for Australia, the upcoming presidential election has the potential to affect bilateral relations. However, experts generally anticipate continuity in Indonesia’s foreign policy approach, suggesting limited major changes.

The Myanmar crisis continues to raise significant concerns, particularly regarding the continuous displacement of people in the aftermath of the coup in 2021. While recent developments have seen resistance groups showing unity and gaining ground, a conclusive resolution remains elusive. Meanwhile, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic assumes the Chairmanship of ASEAN in 2024, and will collaborate with Indonesia and Malaysia through a troika mechanism to address the Myanmar issue, amidst concerns about Lao PDR’s lack of resources and experience. The effectiveness of this troika approach remains to be seen, as it is unclear what support Indonesia, Malaysia and other ASEAN members can extend to Laos. In January 2024, Laos appointed a Special Envoy to Myanmar in an effort to persuade the junta to adhere to the 5PC. Some analysts have often questioned ASEAN’s ability to resolve the crisis, citing its intrinsic internal constraints and divisions.

In 2022, Timor-Leste was accepted as the 11th member of ASEAN, being granted an observer’s status, pending full ratification, albeit without a clear timeframe. However, the nation’s accession into the bloc appears to face obstacles due to its firm stance against the Myanmar junta, potentially undermining the ASEAN principle of consensus. The September 2023 CSP between Timor-Leste and China has raised concerns about a potential security pact similar to the 2022 one between China and Solomon Islands. Timor-Leste will attend the 2024 Special Summit together with ASEAN member state leaders.

The 2024 Special Summit

Compared to the 2018 Summit, the 2024 Summit will encompass a broader and diverse range of activities. Accompanying the Special Summit will be a CEO Business Forum, an SME Conference for small and medium businesses, an Emerging Leaders Dialogue, a Climate and Clean Energy Forum, and a Maritime Cooperation Conference, which means key focus areas include business, emerging leaders, climate and clean energy, and maritime cooperation. These are aligned with Australia’s Southeast Asia economic strategy to 2040, emphasising the need for Australia to raise awareness of SEA markets, remove blockages, build capacity and deepen investment in key sectors, such as green energy transition, education and skills, digital economy and healthcare.

Complex security issues like heightened US-China tensions, cyber threats, and SCS disputes will necessitate in-depth discussions on regional strategies. The impact of navigating the SCS disputes and the long-overdue ASEAN-China Code of Conduct on Australia’s national interest has been a topic of debate over the years. Upcoming discussions in Melbourne will most likely serve to reemphasise the importance of upholding ASEAN centrality.

From Australia’s perspective, collaboration with ASEAN is pivotal for fostering a stable and secure Indo-Pacific region. This cooperation is crucial not only for Australia’s national security, but also for its wider strategic interests. It is anticipated that Australia will pursue stronger collaborative efforts with ASEAN members to jointly tackle security concerns, encompassing maritime security, counterterrorism, and cybersecurity. Specifically, there is an intent to use the newly founded ASEAN-Indo-Pacific Forum (AIPF) as a conduit for encouraging dialogue and action on these matters. Australia aims to contribute to the development of regional security frameworks that adhere to the principles of a rules-based international order. Furthermore, Australia’s commitment to security cooperation extends to non-traditional security issues, such as disaster response and climate change – areas where it can provide considerable expertise and resources.

As an example, Australia has collaborated with ASEAN member states through initiatives such as delivering Civil Maritime Security Programs to enhance leadership and maritime enforcement skills among officers from Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia, and supporting coral reef conservation in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei through the Coral Reef Monitoring and Protection Initiative.

On ASEAN’s part, the member states are keen on preserving their strategic autonomy while boosting their collective ability to manage security challenges. They may appreciate Australia’s support in enhancing their security capabilities, especially in the realms of maritime security and counterterrorism. There is also an interest in further involving Australia in conversations about cybersecurity and the safeguarding of the digital economy, acknowledging the critical role of protecting this rapidly growing sector. Through forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), and AIPF, ASEAN strives to advance a vision of the Indo-Pacific that is open, inclusive, and grounded in mutual respect and international law. Engaging with Australia in these forums may be viewed as a strategy to diversify external relations and promote shared interests and values, ensuring that ASEAN’s perspectives and interests are integral to the regional security architecture.

Economic adaptation will also be key, focusing on navigating the global slowdown, harnessing digitalisation, and exploring new areas like renewable energy and climate change. Besides RCEP and IPEF, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) is another trade agreement focusing on regional integration and economic prosperity for the Indo-Pacific. The CPTPP currently comprises 11 countries, with China facing both technical and political hurdles in its application for membership.

As an original party to all these agreements alongside several ASEAN members, Australia is well-positioned to be a key player in the region’s economic future and to leverage its economic strengths. It should be noted, however, that while bilateral trade relations have grown substantially, with ASEAN becoming Australia’s second-largest trading partner in 2022, there is still significant potential for further expansion and diversification.

Australia and ASEAN share the same aspirations for sustainable development and economic growth. This shared vision is reflected in initiatives focusing on renewable energy, digital infrastructure, and education, aimed at fostering a region that is both prosperous and sustainable. There is also a shared acknowledgement of the importance of developing resilient supply chains and enhancing economic integration to create a trade environment that is secure, efficient, and capable of navigating global uncertainties.

Within this collaborative framework, Australia is committed to broadening trade and investment with ASEAN, recognising the bloc’s significant global influence and its role in the evolution of global supply chains. Australia aspires to be a key partner in sectors such as infrastructure and the digital economy, supporting ASEAN’s progression towards a more technologically sophisticated and integrated economy. Under the Aus4ASEAN Futures Initiative, various projects are underway to support ASEAN priorities. These include investments in Smart City projects, a study on the ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement to accelerate digital integration, and the development of the ASEAN Plan of Action on Science, Technology, and Innovation. Additionally, Australia may seek to deepen its involvement in the economic dynamics of the region through strategic participation in economic integration, employing both existing and potential free trade agreements to enhance economic ties (see Figure 1 for a summary of Australia’s ASEAN programs).

Conversely, ASEAN members are focused on diversifying their economic partnerships (especially considering the growing economic focus on China), aiming to mitigate dependence on any single external economy. This strategy aligns with their broader goal of economic development and ascending global value chains, in which they seek Australia’s support, particularly in digital transformation and sustainable development practices. The rise of economic nationalism and protectionism within the ASEAN region underscores the challenging task of balancing domestic economic goals with the wider demands of global economic integration, a balancing act that could benefit from Australia’s experiences.

Just like the 2018 summit, the 2024 summit’s agenda reflects a forward-thinking approach by prioritising engagement with emerging leaders. As of 2023, there are over 1 million Australians of Southeast Asian descent, 800,000 Australians speaking an ASEAN language, and 100,000 ASEAN students in Australia. Investing in people-to-people connections through cultural exchange programs and educational initiatives will strengthen regional solidarity and understanding, building a community with a shared vision for the future.

Australia’s longstanding role as an education provider for SEA students has been a key factor in strengthening people-to-people ties. To further enhance these relationships, some analysts suggest moving beyond a market-driven approach towards overseas students and further tapping into the potential of the extensive alumni network. Such a shift in perspective may help avoid some of the criticism Australia has previously attracted for prioritising strategic alignment over cultivating genuine relationships with SEA nations.


In short, the 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit will likely serve as a platform for dialogue and exploration in a rapidly evolving global and regional context. It represents not only a celebration of past achievements, but also a forward-looking commitment to jointly address the evolving challenges and opportunities in the region.

Figure 1    A breakdown of Australia’s ASEAN programs

Source: Australian Mission to ASEAN


For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to members of Parliament.

© Commonwealth of Australia

Creative commons logo

Creative Commons

With the exception of the Commonwealth Coat of Arms, and to the extent that copyright subsists in a third party, this publication, its logo and front page design are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia licence.

In essence, you are free to copy and communicate this work in its current form for all non-commercial purposes, as long as you attribute the work to the author and abide by the other licence terms. The work cannot be adapted or modified in any way. Content from this publication should be attributed in the following way: Author(s), Title of publication, Series Name and No, Publisher, Date.

To the extent that copyright subsists in third party quotes it remains with the original owner and permission may be required to reuse the material.

Inquiries regarding the licence and any use of the publication are welcome to

This work has been prepared to support the work of the Australian Parliament using information available at the time of production. The views expressed do not reflect an official position of the Parliamentary Library, nor do they constitute professional legal opinion.

Any concerns or complaints should be directed to the Parliamentary Librarian. Parliamentary Library staff are available to discuss the contents of publications with Senators and Members and their staff. To access this service, clients may contact the author or the Library‘s Central Entry Point for referral.