How well has the Morrison government handled relations with Southeast Asia?
This is part of a foreign policy election series looking at how Australia’s relationship with the world has changed since the Morrison government came to power in 2019. You can read the other articles here.
Prior to September 2021, the Coalition had a largely positive scorecard on relations with Southeast Asia.
But the announcement of Australia’s security agreement with the UK and the US (AUKUS) for the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines has caused a serious rift in our relationship with Asia. from the South East.
Furthermore, the recently signed security pact between the Solomon Islands and China highlights the current complexity of China’s role in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.
The growing gravitation of Southeast Asian countries into China’s orbit is not a fundamental failure of Australian foreign policy. It is based in large part on profound shifts in the balance of economic, political and military power in the Indo-Pacific that have seen China’s influence grow exponentially.
But the challenge is one in which the coalition government seems increasingly ill-equipped to handle it.
Read more: How should the next Australian government manage the Pacific?
Morrison’s background in Southeast Asia
The balance sheet of the Coalition was rather positive until the announcement of AUKUS.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison successfully built on Malcolm Turnbull’s relationship with Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
This contrasts with former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose clumsy responses to espionage allegations and the ‘Bali Nine’ drug case did little to endear him to Indonesian political leaders.
The Coalition’s political initiatives on Vietnam have also been commendable. In 2018, the relationship between Australia and Vietnam was upgraded to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. This will expand cooperation between the two countries, especially in defense and security. This is based on Vietnam’s closer alignment with Australia in the face of maritime coercion from China.
In 2020, Australia signed the world’s largest free trade agreement with ten ASEAN member states, China and other Asia-Pacific countries, called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
This has further strengthened Australia’s economic integration with major trading partners in the region.
The pandemic has exposed the inadequate health infrastructure and vulnerable informal employment sectors of many Southeast Asian countries.
In response, the Morrison government quickly pivoted its aid package to COVID aid. It channeled $480 million to our hardest-hit regional neighbours.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg extended a $1.5 billion loan to Indonesia in late 2020 as the country’s finances struggled with the effects of COVID.
Read more: As rich countries experience a post-COVID boom, the poor are getting poorer. Here’s how Australia can help
However, the Morrison government’s AUKUS announcement in September 2021 created a serious rift in Australia’s relationship with Southeast Asia.
The nuclear-powered submarine deal – crafted in secret between Australia, the UK and the US – threatened to undermine the independence and credibility of Australia’s foreign policy in South Asia. South East.
He also challenged long-established ASEAN norms that oppose the presence of nuclear weapons.
Among ASEAN states, it was received most negatively by its largest member state, Indonesia, whose foreign ministry demanded immediate clarification from the Morrison government.
Indonesia has seen the AUKUS deal – and the informal “Quad” alliance comprising Japan, the United States, Australia and India – as anti-China coalitions that could escalate tensions.
The spat highlights the increasingly divergent regional perspectives of Australia and Indonesia. It also highlights long-standing issues in the relationship. Indonesia believes that Australia is disrespectful and that Canberra has not consulted enough with Jakarta on vital foreign policy issues.
Whichever party forms the government after the elections will have to deal with this.
The corner of work
Solomon Islands’ security agreement with China has radically changed the electoral dynamic. This has provided Labor with a corner issue to argue that the coalition is incompetent on national security and regional foreign policy.
Prior to the security agreement, there was little substantive difference between the Labor Party and the Coalition on Southeast Asia.
Where Labor has differentiated itself from the Coalition is in its increased political commitment to Southeast Asia, its pledge to reverse cuts to Australia’s aid and diplomatic resources, and its regional focus on climate change.
Now sensing a political advantage, Labor announced an additional $525 million in foreign aid for the Pacific if elected. This recalibration of Labour’s regional foreign policy platform will likely extend to Southeast Asia with further announcements expected.
Anti-China rhetoric is currently at its height in the coalition government. For Australia to succeed in Southeast Asia, governments of both political persuasions need a more sophisticated narrative about China’s role in the region to avoid the alienation of key partners.
Governments must also respect the sustainable economic development priorities of Southeast Asian countries on their own terms, and not just as pawns in a larger geopolitical game.
On this point, it seems that the Labor Party is in the lead.