EXPLAINED: Australia’s ties with South-East Asia

With more than 600 million inhabitants divided over 11 nations, it is a powerful region with one of the most significant economies in the world.

But is Australia misinterpreting South-East Asia?

“A couple of decades ago, we were necessary there. We no longer matter as much, “In an interview with ABC RN’s Saturday Extra, Professor Tony Milner, the head of Asialink at the University of Melbourne and a longtime observer of the area, explains.

He cautions that Australia is losing significant economic, political, and cultural benefits due to its continued isolation from South-East Asia.

The Association of South-East Asian Countries, or ASEAN, comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and Timor-Leste.

This area is highly diversified. There are countless ethnic groups, each with its own culture. There are thousands of languages in use.

The world’s most populous Muslim nation is Indonesia, along with one of the world’s most populous Catholic nations, the Philippines, while the most numerous Buddhist nations are worldwide (Thailand).

There are many diverse political systems, but they are generally stable across nations. The main exception is Myanmar, a country plagued by protracted turmoil and violent war.
Singapore, one of the most important financial centres in the world, is located in South-East Asia and has a combined GDP of about US$3.6 trillion ($5.4 trillion). By comparison, Australia’s GDP is about US$1.7 trillion ($2.5 trillion).

Therefore, avoid calling it Australia’s backyard.

“South-East Asia is still referred to as our “backyard” in a phrase I recently saw in an article. By displaying the vast array of currently nearby nations, that is not the best method to engage the Australian population, “says Milner.

Australian influence is waning.

According to Milner, the fact that “the relativities have shifted” has played a significant role in how Australia’s relationship with South-East Asia has changed over the past few decades.

“Not that long ago, our GDP was more than the combined GDP of all of ASEAN. Today, they are more than twice as large as us, “He claims.

“ASEAN is our second-largest trading relationship, yet we only account for 2–3% of their commerce with them as their eighth or ninth-largest trading partner.”

“Furthermore, there is a lot more competition in the area. A few decades ago, Korea had minimal economic significance for South-East Asia. They trade there two to three times as much as we do.”

One fact that numerous experts have mentioned is: For instance, Australia has less investment in Vietnam than the Danish toy and game maker Lego.

The State of South-East Asia Survey also sheds light on Australia’s declining perceptions in South-East Asia.

The survey inquires about the region from South-East Asian opinion leaders in academia, business, NGOs, and government sectors.

According to Milner, we do okay when it comes to providing ‘Western’ education in the region.

“But we’re not considered major participants in several other areas; Australia is given fairly low percentages.”

He claims we “don’t come through very powerfully” when influencing, advocating free trade, and a rules-based society.

This, according to Milner, contrasts with a few decades ago when Australia participated in the Cambodian peace process, played a vital role in the formation of the Cairns Group of Fair Trading Nations and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and was a driving force behind the Chemical Weapons Convention.

There are far fewer instances from the previous two years. “That annoys me. There is work to be done “He claims.

\We need to address “our fragile investment in the region,” says Milner, the most “clear” problem with South-East Asia.

The region receives an “enormous amount of investment” from several nations, including the US and Europe.

“Do we not have faith in the area? Why aren’t we let inside? Why aren’t we able to lead?” says Milner.

There are indications that the Albanian government wants to deal with this. Nicholas Moore, a former CEO of the Macquarie Group, was designated as a special envoy for South-East Asia late last year.

Examining how Australia may benefit from new classes of South-East Asian people potentially becoming significantly wealthier is a part of Moore’s job.

Moore is one of several who has made the point that by 2040, approximately 26 million households in the majority of South-East Asian economies may have discretionary incomes of above US$35,000 ($52,000).

“We frequently discuss India, yet the ASEAN Economy is more significant than India’s and is undoubtedly more extensive globally in trade than India. Hence, something is missing, “says Milner.

According to Milner, the relationship extends beyond professional connections and global outreach.

He remarks that we have to put in a lot of effort here in Australia.

For instance, South-East Asian languages and studies are not widely taught in Australian universities or schools.

According to the Asia Education Foundation, the number of students studying the Indonesian language in year 12 (Bahasa Indonesia) has decreased by 50% during one school generation.

According to a 2020 survey, university students studying Indonesian decreased by 63% between 1992 and 2019.

Also, institutions have reduced their Asian studies faculty and programs, which has angered observers in South-East Asia.

“In the Australian National University, there isn’t now a South-East Asian historian on staff. A region that formerly dominated the world in Asian studies that is astonishing, “says Milner.

He also draws attention to broader perceptions of Australia’s position in the world.

He argues, “We have to put South-East Asia in our minds.

“According to surveys conducted by the Lowy Institute, the only way we can think of the rest of the world is as a US ally. That is simply unacceptable. We should be “a country defining itself as deeply connected in South-East Asia,” he continues, adding that we are much more than that “.

In conclusion, Milner claims that we could need a reset with the area, but one that is founded on a prosperous past.

“We have spent decades in this area. We have a history of involvement. We have representatives. There used to be academics here who were quite knowledgeable about that area. There is the business community, which participates in some commerce, “He claims.

Yet we need to utilise those resources, which is concerning.

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