Time to step up in Southeast Asia

23 November 2012

US President Barack Obama participates in the East Asia Summit Plenary Session in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. [Image: US State Department]
US President Barack Obama participates in the East Asia Summit Plenary Session in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. [Image: US State Department]

Only days after his re-election, Barack Obama left for Thailand, Burma and Cambodia on his fifth trip to Asia as President and the first visit ever by a US president to Burma or Cambodia.

His decision to do so is historic not just because of what it says about the US position on Burma and efforts to promote Asian democracy, but because of what it says about Southeast Asia.

President Obama's aides are making no bones about the fact that the trip is part of US efforts to generate ballast against the increasing power of China. And as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan know only too well, there is no better place to do so than in their own neighbourhood.

Along with China itself, other northeast Asian nations are investing hugely in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - not just in trade and aid, but in myriad forms of soft diplomacy.

This is, of course, not the first time Southeast Asia has found itself in the geopolitical limelight.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the region was a key Cold War battlefield. Fearful of the ''domino effect'', the US and its allies were desperate to keep capitalist Southeast Asia out of the hands of the communists. To do so, they gave almost unconditional support to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore.

This changed dramatically with the end of the Cold War, as socialist regimes everywhere struggled to remain relevant and capitalist Southeast Asia's role as a buffer was no longer so important.

Obama's quick-fire visit confirms, however, that Southeast Asia is well and truly back in the geopolitical spotlight.

This renewed attention poses great challenges to governments in the region, as they struggle to manage the enormous demands that being in the spotlight brings. But it also brings great challenges for Australia.

With the exception of its on-and-off-again relationship with Indonesia, successive Australian governments have too often taken Southeast Asia, which is home to more than 600 million people, for granted.

It accounts for a big chunk of our development aid, but otherwise the vast majority of countries in the region gets very little airtime in Australia.

The Asian century white paper goes some way to addressing this, as does the government's strategy of direct engagement with parliamentarians from the region. But there is room for more to be done.

First, Australia needs a comprehensive plan for our regional engagement, which recognises Southeast Asia's long-term strategic importance to Australia, regardless of how the international geopolitical winds are blowing. We have got away for a long time with not doing this. But as Southeast Asian nations mature individually, and as a bloc, it is no longer enough to court them individually when it suits us to do so and ignore them when it does not.

Such a plan needs to go beyond free trade agreements, engagement with the region's so-called ''active regional powers'' on defence and security, or encouragement of people-to-people ties - as important as these activities are - or even an increased emphasis on Australia's relationship with ASEAN.

It needs to engage with every Southeast Asian country on its own terms, and in ways that go beyond economics and security.

But it also needs to engage in a systematic and co-ordinated way with Southeast Asia as a region on a whole raft of issues, including shared priorities like the environment, food security, infectious diseases and human mobility.

ASEAN is part of this equation, but it's certainly not the whole game. If Australia is to get anywhere on these complicated issues, it needs to be much more than a fair-weather friend.

As part of this, Australian universities need to step up to the challenge of supporting our policy-makers and diplomats. Australia has long been recognised as having a world-class concentration of Southeast Asia expertise in the humanities and social sciences.

Not only has this expertise been undermined in recent decades by a lack of institutional support but the social sciences and humanities are no longer enough.

Our universities need to engage in big-picture multidisciplinary projects that reach beyond the academy and into the region if they are to help deepen Australia's engagement.

It is common knowledge that relationships mean a lot to individuals and nations in Southeast Asia.

There's a huge opportunity for Australia to take a leadership role in supporting the world's engagement in this region. The question is, then, not whether we should do it, but whether we are up to it.

Michele Ford is director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, at the University of Sydney. SSEAC will be formally launched by Foreign Minister Bob Carr today.

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