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  • Writer's pictureMike Lyons

THE ASEAN MEETING IN AUSTRALIA – March 2024


The ASEAN meeting took place in Melbourne during the first week of March 2024. The ASEAN Member Nations comprise: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Australia is not a member but it became a dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1974.




ASEAN’s Differing (and Independent) Views


Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim referred to China as the leading investor in Malaysia and said that while Malaysia remained an important friend to the US, Europe, and Australia, that should not preclude Malaysia from being friendly to “One of our important neighbours, precisely China. If they have problems with China, they should not impose them on us. We do not have a problem with China”.


On the other hand, Philippines President “Bongbong” Marcos vowed that his country “would not yield an inch of territory to China” and called for expanded military ties with Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) reported on a collision in the South China Sea between a Chinese Coast Guard vessel and a Philippines Navy vessel on its way to resupply its troops in the contested Second Thomas Shoal. The SMH described this as “brutal harassment of the Philippines by China”. Peter Hartcher criticised the ASEAN members saying they “Couldn’t bring themselves to say a harsh word, even in support of one of the group’s five founding nations”. Hartcher complained that ASEAN works on consensus and it only takes one member to block any statement or action. He omitted to mention that the same applies to the United Nations Security Council where any one member can block a resolution, or NATO where any one member can prevent the admission of a new member even if every other party wishes to do so.


Hartcher would benefit by taking note of Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s statement that “We have an interest in freedom of navigation. [The South China Sea] is a vital artery for international trade for us. There are four ASEAN members who are claimant states in the South China Sea. These claims overlap with each other and overlap with claims by China”. Lee pointed out that “ASEAN was negotiating a code of conduct with Beijing on the South China Sea but that it would take time”. Clearly, no “foreign interference” is called for!


Prime minister Albanese added, “Freedom of navigation is fundamental to our sovereignty, our prosperity, our security and our territorial integrity”. Keeping trade routes through the South China Sea free is vital to Australia’s financial and security interests and the issue is a key part of the reasoning for AUKUS. However, despite all of the Hoo-ha about freedom of navigation, there is no recorded instance in which China has actually obstructed a commercial ship in the South China Sea!


Ultimately the meeting concluded with a 55 point Melbourne Declaration which focused more on the art of diplomacy than any meaningful outcomes. The summit avoided contentious issues while ensuring that there was no direct condemnation of China. There was no reference to AUKUS nor any mention, even of Taiwan.


Penny Wong


Foreign Minister Penny Wong likened a conflict in Southeast Asia to the devastation of the wars in the Middle East and Europe. Without naming China, she said the regions character was “under challenge” and she took aim at claims and actions that are inconsistent with international law. Wong warned that the existing order faced “Destabilising, provocative and coercive actions including unsafe conduct at sea and in the air and militarisation of disputed features”. Nevertheless, in 2022, Wong quoted Paul Keating when she said that “Australia must find its security in Asia, not from Asia”.


Paul Keating


Keating took aim at the Australian government’s regional strategy accusing Wong of seeking to “rattle the China can”, while adding that Malaysia’s leader, Anwar Ibrahim had dropped a huge rock into Wong’s pond by telling Australia not to piggyback Australia’s problems with China onto ASEAN. Keating also slammed the Albanese government’s “Anti-China strategic policy and mindless pro-American stance”.


A number of Labor MPs disagreed with Keating saying that our region had moved on since Keating’s time in office. However, Keating who is also a fierce critic of AUKUS warned that Australia was at odds with its ASEAN partners because it was committed to maintaining US primacy in Asia, adding that the maintenance of US strategic hegemony is being left to supplicants like Australia.


Anthony Albanese


Albanese rejected Keating’s criticism of Penny Wong, but he also repeated that Australia must find “it’s security in Asia, not from Asia”. And then, as usual, Albanese clarified Australia’s position on China saying (and he repeated himself for the umpteenth time) Australia will “cooperate where we can” and “disagree where we must”.


Labor dismisses Keating’s views at great risk to its own credentials and to the people of Australia. Keating may be eighty years old, but he is no Rip Van Winkle, and his mental acuity is as sharp as ever, while his knowledge and awareness of current events and circumstances impacting Australia is as clear and insightful as ever.


Keating in 2023


In April 2023 Keating accused Penny Wong of speaking in “Platitudes” and failing to add one iota of substance to the task of ensuring peace between China and the US. (To be clear, “Platitude” is defined in the Oxford dictionary as “A trite, dull, or obvious remark” while Google describes it as “A remark or statement that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful”. Perhaps Albanese’s repetitive comments about cooperating with China where we can and disagreeing where we must are also platitudes!


Keating claimed that Wong had been unable to nominate a single piece of strategic statecraft by Australia that would attempt a solution of tensions between China and the US. In classic Keating style, he added that “Never before has a Labor government been so bereft of policy or policy ambition”.


AUKUS What Should Australia’s Priorities Be?


Hugh White, arguably Australia’s leading, independent defence expert asks whether AUKUS (with its nuclear powered submarines) will make Australia less, rather than more secure. He points out that AUKUS does not enhance America’s commitments to Australia under the ANZUS treaty nor does it determine whether America would come to our aid in a crisis. Instead AUKUS locks Australia into US policy in Asia for the next 40 years. The big question is whether we are building these submarines to defend ourselves, or to fight alongside America against China.


Bear in mind that Australia has made no promise to the US that it would actually support the US in a conflict over Taiwan which could plunge Australia into the biggest military conflict since World War II. There would be little prospect that America would win. Notably, most ASEAN nations have also made no commitment to take America’s side.


It has been suggested that nuclear powered submarines would enable Australia to launch missile strikes on Chinese targets but as White says, a strike from Australia would make little impact on China other than to strengthen China’s resolve against Australia, and China’s capacity to hit us is far greater than our capacity to hit China.


According to White, the primary role of Australia’s defence is and should be to deny air and sea approaches to those forces which are hostile to Australia. For that purpose, a bigger fleet of conventional submarines would be far more effective than the nuclear option, for much less money and with less risk. A fleet of eight submarines would protect only a tiny fraction of Australia’s shores. Moreover, the first of the eight AUKUS subs would only become available to Australia in the 2040s with the last to arrive in the mid-2060s – 40 years from now. Those timeframes are absurd.


Even then the U.S. Navy and Congress have expressed real doubts about whether America should supply these submarines to Australia. White believes that failures in the AUKUS deal for one reason or another will eventually bring the plan to a halt and, says White “We should hope the end comes soon”. Australia must recognise the profound shift in wealth and power in our region which means that America’s role will change and shrink. Australia can no longer assume that we will be kept safe by our once great and powerful friend.


Conclusion


With the Australian government (like the preceding Liberal government under Morrison) choosing to dismiss warnings from Paul Keating and Hugh White, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that AUKUS really is likely to make Australia less, rather than more secure.


"AUDI ALTERAM PARTEM" - HEAR THE OTHER SIDE!

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