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The need for strengthening ASEAN-Australia relationship

By Sahima Gupta

May 23, 2018

From 17-18 March 2018, Australia hosted the first ever ASEAN-Australia special summit on Australian soil. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called the summit a great success and said, “The summit has given us an opportunity to confirm Australia’s steadfast commitment to ASEAN, the centrality of ASEAN and Australia as an all-weather friend, now and into the future.”

At the end of the summit, both sides committed to concluding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by this year. The free trade agreement has 16 negotiating partners, all the 10-member states of ASEAN, Australia, China, New Zealand, India, Japan and South Korea, which is expected to cover 30 percent of global Gross Domestic Product. The RCEP has missed three deadlines since talks began in late 2012.

Australia began engaging ASEAN in 1974 and became its first dialogue partner through East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum. Through the years, both parties have made progress, including the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade in 2010, a dedicated Australian mission in Jakarta in 2013, and the agreement to enter into strategic partnership in 2014, and the start of biennial leaders’ summit since 2016.

The trade between Australia and ASEAN in 2016-2017 was over $100 billion, more than that of the US and Japan. Australia’s regional and bilateral free trade agreements with individual member states are a way to enter into the ASEAN economic community.

The relationship between the two is not limited to trade but also other issues including migration, education exchanges and tourism. Such relationship helps in countering human trafficking, supports development and reduction of poverty, and the safe migration of people.

Both parties have taken several steps to strengthen the relationship but they lack action to support mutual commitments. For example, in recent years ASEAN has been criticized for not standing up to the challenge and having little impact on the question of diplomacy and security.

Despite the debates surrounding the ineffectiveness or shortcomings of ASEAN, the relationship provides Australia the opportunities to engage with its partners in the region and beyond.

Similarly, ASEAN members should look at the relationship with Australia as a unique source of strength which comes from being located far off in Asia and yet having European ties.

As more and more states want to establish ties with ASEAN, Australia should not lose its competitive position. The strengthening of relationship can bolster economic ties, security of the region and also ensure mutual prosperity.

Both parties need to realize the advantages and or opportunities the strategic partnership can provide to the region and beyond.

Sahima Gupta is a Bachelor's student at Jindal School of Liberal Arts & Humanities and an intern at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. Views expressed are personal.