On the first day of the ASEAN Summit in Sydney, Australian PM Turnbull and Singaporean PM Lee, both reiterated their support for free trade, in light of protectionist measures taken by the United States. Prior to the summit, Australia also came under scrutiny from international observers due to allegations of human rights abuse in a number of ASEAN countries.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, was established on 8 August 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand, with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration (Bangkok Declaration). The founding nations of ASEAN were Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Brunei then joined in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Laos and Myanmar in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999, making what is today the ten member states of ASEAN. The bloc aims to “promote political, economic and social cooperation and regional stability.”
Member nations of the bloc cooperate in the spheres of security and economics. Economically, ASEAN is one of the most powerful blocs in the world, growing at an annual rate of 5.3% between 2007 and 2015. During the same time frame, the bloc’s total trade increased by $700 billion. In 2015, ASEAN was the 6th largest economy in the world, and the 3rd largest in Asia.
ASEAN also has free trade agreements with a number of other nations, including India and Australia. Australia became ASEAN’s first dialogue partner in 1974, and established a strategic partnership in 2014. In 2016, Australia’s total two way trade with the regional bloc was $93.2 billion. The same year, ASEAN provided $41.6 billion in foreign investment to Australia. According to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “Australia's economic and security interests remain inextricably linked with the countries of Southeast Asia.”
Two key areas of development between ASEAN and Australia are the ASEAN-Australia Development Cooperation Program Phase II and the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement.
There have been increasing fears of economic protectionism in the past year since Donald Trump’s “America First” policy became a cause for concern even amongst US allies. In recent months, experts have begun sounding the alarm about an impending trade war between the US and China. A number of countries including Germany, Canada, and China warned that they would retaliate if major tariffs were imposed against them.
March 16th was the first day of the ASEAN Summit hosted in Sydney. Both Australia and the South-East Asian bloc made a point to espouse free trade at the conference, and reject protectionism. The comments were made in light of US steel tariffs that were announced earlier this month.
“You don’t grow stronger by closing the door to other markets. Protectionism is a dead end. It is not a ladder to get you out of the low growth trap, it is a shovel to dig it much deeper,” Australian Prime Minister Turnbull said at the Summit. “We must face the world, not turn from it. Embrace free trade, not retreat from it.”
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed similar sentiments. “I know the global mood may be heading in the opposite direction but within ASEAN we are working to deepen and deepen interdependence to work together to open up markets,” he said.
The ASEAN meeting also drew criticism due to the presence of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and Cambodia’s Hun Sen. The two nations are currently under scrutiny due to human rights abuses, the former due to the horrific crimes against the Rohingya, and the latter due to crackdowns against opposition. The Philippines government’s “war on drugs” has also received harsh criticism from the West.
“The human rights crisis in Rakhine State, and Myanmar as a whole, must be top of the agenda this weekend in Sydney. ASEAN has been shamefully silent on what is happening in one of its member states so far,” James Gomez, Director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific for Amnesty International, said before the summit.
The Australia director of Human Rights Watch Elaine Pearson said, “Australia’s failure to publicly raise human rights concerns at the summit would not only provide a propaganda coup to ASEAN’s most abusive leaders, it will embolden all the region’s leaders contemplating major crackdowns, jailing journalists or dismantling democratic institutions.”
Julie Bishop, Australian Foreign Minister noted that Australia would be voicing its concern regarding the human rights violations in Myanmar and Cambodia. “We don’t see it as having a role to balance the powers in the Indo-Pacific but rather be at the heart of the engagement collaboration with other countries,” she said. The summit ended on Sunday (18th March).
Our assessment is that Australia is attempting to find its place as a global power. The South-East Asian region may be facing geopolitical uncertainty, due to Xi Jinping’s aggressive foreign policy stance, and Trump’s “America first” policy. However, it is an area of thriving economic activity. We believe that strengthening ties with ASEAN will undoubtedly benefit Australia. We believe that India would also benefit from deepening ties in the region.
Read more: India’s engagement with ASEAN nations