This week Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will host ASEAN heads of government in Melbourne for the second ASEAN­–Australia Special Summit on Australian soil, on the 50th anniversary of the ASEAN-Australia dialogue partnership.

Plenty has changed since the first iteration of this summit, arguably the most important diplomatic event hosted by Australia alongside the occasional APEC or G20 summit.

When former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull hosted ASEAN heads of government in Sydney in 2018, Australia’s political class was in the middle of a swing from complacency to hysteria about what China’s rising power meant for Australian security. Since then, the election of the centre-left Labor Party government has sought to restore some balance, embracing a more diplomatic rhetoric on China and pursuing a strategy of ‘stabilisation’ of the relationship, even while deepening defence ties with the United States and common allies in East Asia.

Grandstanding on the China relationship, the AUKUS deal and a diplomacy that seemed in many Southeast Asian capitals to have turned too sharply towards the US and away from Asia was eroding Australia’s reputation across many parts of the region.

Even though Chinese authorities battered Australian confidence in China’s interest in restoring cooperative relations by imposing a suspended death sentence on an Australian national accused of spying in February 2024, the idea that poor relations with China are a sign that you’re doing something right is no longer the prevailing ethos in Canberra.

Yet some things have stayed the same. Australia’s investment of its diplomatic and political energies in ASEAN is — Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s insistence that Canberra takes ASEAN seriously for its own sake notwithstanding —inextricably bound up in a dominant Australian security perspective that sees ASEAN’s importance only as a security counterbalance to China, to be press-ganged into that common cause.

And the continued tensions between the liberal-democratic values that underpin many Australians’ sense of national identity and the imperatives for cooperation with illiberal and undemocratic regimes that strategic circumstances give rise to have been on full display in the lead up to this week’s summit as they were in 2018.

On the occasion of the last summit, some found it unseemly that the red carpet was rolled out for the likes of Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak (then up to his neck in the 1MDB corruption scandal), Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen (then busy turning his country into a one-party state), and Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (then under fire for her complicity in the ethnic cleansing of Rakhine State).

Now, in 2024, Philippine President Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr’s address to Australia’s parliament, in which he made common cause with Australia in his country’s maritime disputes with China, saw a protest by a senator from the left-wing Greens party decrying his administration’s continuation of Rodrigo Duterte’s violent anti-drugs campaign.

That objections to chummy relations with the likes of Marcos, Hun Manet or Prabowo Subianto come most loudly from the political left are a longstanding irony of Australian foreign policy discourse. Progressives readily identify the problems with Australia’s near-umbilical strategic alignment with Washington. But they forget that the flipside of increased independence from the US agenda in the Indo-Pacific is a stronger imperative to find security among, and in cooperation with, the only sporadically democratic states of Australia’s immediate region.

Simultaneously curtailing the strategic relationship with the United States while letting rights-and-democracy concerns — however legitimate they may be — impede political and security cooperation with almost all of Asia is a prescription for sitting in friendless sanctimony. That is every bit a strategic dead-end for Australia as the option favoured by conservatives who propose orienting Australia’s foreign and strategic (and increasingly, though implausibly, economic) policy around supporting a futile US-led containment of China.

Australia’s investment in ASEAN must instead be based on an appreciation of the bloc’s potential as the anchor of a future-proofed regional institutional architecture — a ‘rules-based order’ that finds its intellectual and institutional foundations in the likes of ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and its Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. 

Such an architecture would embrace a comprehensive conception of regional security interests and the multilateralist principles upon which deep economic interdependence and regional prosperity, including that of Australia, have been built.

What distinguishes Australia’s relationship with ASEAN — distinct from but complementary to its bilateral ties with its member states — is the breadth of issues that can be discussed under its rubric.

As Peter Drysdale and Mari Pangestu write in this week’s lead article, ‘ASEAN centrality embodies core economic and non-military security objectives that the Quad and Australia’s security relationship with the United States cannot credibly encompass’.

‘What’s at stake [in Australia’s relationship with ASEAN]’, Drysdale and Pangestu point out, ‘is the sustainability of the region’s prosperity, built upon multilateral trade and economic interdependence, with its deeply intertwined supply chains and outward-looking development strategies. The overarching worry is about the bifurcation of the economy as countries in the region are being forced by the great powers to choose sides — eroding their autonomy and limiting their ability to ensure their own security — a pressure that will certainly intensify should Mr Trump secure a second term as US president’.

ASEAN and Australia share vital interests in defending a free and open global economy and securing prosperity and stability in their region, which are being undermined by the reassertion of great-power rivalry in Asia. Governments on both sides of the Pacific have resorted to traditional security responses — unwinding economic interdependence, prioritising military deterrence as means of preventing conflict, weaponising economic interdependence for coercive purposes and threatening military force to achieve political ends — dynamics that risk global political and economic fragmentation, or worse, which would have a huge impact on the Southeast Asian economies.

These are the foundational interests that supply the rationale for bringing the Australia–ASEAN relationship into a new phase, elevating the coordination of regional policy strategies to respond to heightened uncertainty caused by geopolitical tensions.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.