Australia’s new Federal Government has made closer ties with Southeast Asia one of its foreign policy priorities. It has pledged to ramp up development support, appoint a special envoy for the region, and foster collaboration on issues such as climate action, among other initiatives.
As Australia’s approach and relationships in the region take on renewed diplomatic interest, what would more meaningful engagement look like? What shared challenges should be addressed as a priority? And what are the potential stumbling blocks to closer ties, with ASEAN and its member nations?
Now in its tenth iteration, SSEAC’s annual ASEAN in Focus forum delved into these questions, bringing together policy experts and professionals with long-held connections to the region for a stimulating panel discussion, chaired by SSEAC Director Professor Michele Ford.
Held online in partnership with the ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership (AASYP), the event kicked off with each of the five panellists identifying a key area Australia could focus on to drive forward engagement with the region.
Dr Huong Le Thu (Perth USAsia Centre) singled out the potential for collaboration and integration on technology and digital infrastructure.
Mr Richard Maude (Asia Society Australia) asserted that Australia should target economic engagement, and noted digital trade and e-commerce, technical and vocational education, health security, and clean energy, as priority areas.
Ms Susannah Patton (Lowy Institute) argued that Australia’s international education strategy should be reframed, away from a market-based focus and toward an emphasis on relationships, in addition to new initiatives to support human capacity-building.
Ms Josephine Lovensa (ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership) emphasised the importance of engaging with young people in the region, as part of a more sustainable, long-term relationship.
Finally, Ms Tamerlaine Beasley (Australia-ASEAN Council) highlighted the importance of people-to-people relations in sharing experiences and driving collaboration to meet common challenges facing Australia and the region.
These opening remarks were followed by a wide-ranging discussion, with questions posed by Professor Ford and members of the online audience.
Topics covered included opportunities for connection, research and education facilitated by digital tools, while noting the divide between and within countries on digital education; Australia’s soft power potential and the need for communication strategies that reflect the region’s information environment; Australia’s diplomatic approach to the crisis in junta-ruled Myanmar; and the need to strike the right balance between engaging governments and civil society.
The event concluded with each speaker casting their mind forward to outline what they anticipated – or hoped – Australia’s relations with the region would look like at the end of the current government’s first term in office. Among possible benchmarks discussed was the realisation of increased interest in Southeast Asian history, languages and culture in Australia, in education and media. It was also pointed out that 2024 would be significant in marking 50 years of Australia-ASEAN relations.
Thank you to all our panellists and online audience members for contributing to such a timely and thought-provoking discussion that mapped the contours of Australia’s engagement in the region in the years ahead.