Publication: Australian Financial Review
Author: Lisa Murray

This weekend Australia has a rare opportunity to join regional powers in nutting out their approach to the ramped up, geostrategic tug of war that is now the ghost at every diplomatic table.

In interviews with Fairfax Media this week, ASEAN leaders set out their positions ahead of this weekend's ASEAN-Australia Summit in Sydney. Vietnam is emerging as a strong supporter of groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, the US and Japan to counterbalance the rising influence of China. Singapore and Indonesia are more cautious about the establishment of formal rival blocs, which may be seen in Beijing as part of a strategy to contain China and force smaller countries to choose sides. Malaysia believes the US as the resident power should leave some room at the table for the rising power, China.

ASEAN's place at the centre of this global power transition is not new. By virtue of geography, it has been grappling with how to handle this role for decades.

However, there is now an urgency to managing its place in the world as the US under Donald Trump adopts an America-first approach to foreign policy while China takes on a more aggressive stance under increasingly powerful leader Xi Jinping.

That has prompted ASEAN countries to seek out other partners in the region to buttress security arrangements and provide a hedge against China, which in turn provides an opportunity for Australia to expand its influence.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo told The Australian Financial Review in Jakarta it was a "good idea" for Australia to join ASEAN to provide both economic and political stability.

While all 10 countries would have to agree – ASEAN makes decisions by consensus and other members are less keen on the idea of broadening their ranks beyond south-east Asia – the fact its biggest member is open the idea is a sign of a region in flux, looking for fresh ideas.

This has in part come about by the dramatic change in Washington's policy on Asia, from former US president Barack Obama's "pivot" to the region as a counterbalance to China's strategic ambitions, to the more erratic and transactional approach of Trump, who just this week sacked his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, via Twitter.

'They've been let down by the US'

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the Financial Review that "from the region's perspective, the most critical issue is the political and strategic resolve of the US to project a reliable and constructive presence as a Pacific power".

Singapore, along with Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, are all members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest multilateral trade deal ever negotiated that had to be reworked after the Trump administration withdrew from the TPP – its first order of business in the White House.

Former Australian trade minister Andrew Robb said the TPP decision was the stand-out example of the lack of US leadership in the region.

"Many of the states in ASEAN are feeling the US has retreated significantly from the region and the withdrawal from TPP has become a very big symbol of that retreat," he said on the sidelines of a conference leading up to the summit.

"ASEAN members, particularly smaller countries, feel they have been dudded. They've been let down by the US, who sold the pivot and said the TPP was the symbol of its commitment and its long and strong leadership in the region. They want China to grow and keep benefiting everyone but they also want the US to provide balance."

However, countries in the region have different views about how this balance might be achieved. Vietnam is emerging as the most willing to take a stand against China. Both Hanoi and Beijing are under Communist one-party rule but the two are locked in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea and relations have been strained since China built and militarised a string of man-made islands in the contested waterway to strengthen its claims. In 2014 China also placed an oil rig in waters off the Paracel Islands, which Hanoi claims, prompting angry protests across Vietnam that lasted for weeks. 

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said the country stood "ready to join in efforts towards maintaining peace and stability in the region", flagging the possibility of future co-operation on freedom of navigation operations.  

He also said there was a strong role for Australia in the region, while Singapore's Lee pointed out Australia was a non-claimant, and as such any part it might play in the dispute was limited. Asked whether he supported the Quad, he cautioned against support for groups that might be viewed as anti-China.

"We do not want to end up with rival blocs forming or countries having to take one side or the other," he said.

'These are issues ASEAN has to deal with '

Taking the same cautious line, former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa reiterated his warning this week the Indo-Pacific – a term that has increasingly been adopted as a regional strategy by both the US and Australia – should not be part of a "containment strategy" against China.

Cambodia and Laos are generally viewed as being in China's corner and have vetoed strong statements about Beijing's aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea in the past.

Malaysia, too, has strengthened ties with Beijing in recent years helped along by billions of dollars' worth of infrastructure investment from China.

The Sultan of Perak, Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah, a potential future king of Malaysia, said in a keynote speech in the lead up to the summit: "The best outcome would be for resident powers to concede some space at the table for rising powers.

"Prospects might become brighter if military alliances could morph into more inclusive and co-operative structures," he said.

Singapore's Lee in a press conference on Friday said that dealing with the shift in the balance of power was "the reality of the way the world is".

"These are issues ASEAN has to deal with and we will have to do our best to manage all these tensions and these pressures."

The challenge for Canberra is in trying to unify ASEAN so that its divisions don't make it irrelevant.

This requires some deft diplomacy, particularly given the serious human rights problems across the region.

Human rights question marks

Human Rights Watch noted in a lengthy report ahead of the summit that "it would be a major setback for citizens of ASEAN countries for the Australian government to gloss over human rights issues in the hopes of winning over the region's leaders away from China". 

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte did not come to Australia for the summit and announced this week Manila was withdrawing from the International Criminal Court. His "war on drugs", launched after he took office in June 2016, has claimed an estimated 12,000 lives.

Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has also come under fire for failing to denounce the military's violent campaign against Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State, which has caused more than 688,000 refugees to flee to Bangladesh.

And when members of Australia's Cambodian community announced they were planning to protest the visit of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for more than 30 years and recently banned the main opposition party, he responded by threatening to beat up demonstrators.

Meanwhile, Thailand is run by a military junta, Vietnam and Laos are one-party states and Malaysia and Singapore severely restrict rights to free expression and peaceful assembly.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was in statesman mode on Friday at a press conference with Lee when asked about whether he would raise these human rights issues.

"The engagement we have in our region is frank engagement with all countries in the region," he said.

"We approach ASEAN with the greatest of respect. We respect the centrality of ASEAN in our region and we respect the consensus model upon which it's based."