A CASUAL examination of Asean’s Dialogue partners often sees China, Japan, South Korea, the United States, and recently, India receive more publicity and recognition compared with Australia and New Zealand. In fact, some analysts have argued that there seems to be a lack of appreciation for the relationship between the three parties.

This might seem unfair, but it is also understandable. Both do not have the capacity of some of the larger Dialogue Partners for comprehensive engagement with Asean. Additionally, some of the achievements and ongoing efforts in the relationship do not get the same media attention the larger partners tend to generate. These contribute to the perception that Australia and New Zealand are “less active”.

The bilateral histories and levels of engagement are also an influencing factor. Some Asean members are much more familiar with Australia and New Zealand as the relationship — whether official, commercial, or people-to-people — predate the formation of Asean and, in some cases, even before the former were independent countries.

In the first of a two-part article, this author aims to delve deeper into this trilateral relationship, focusing on its history and scope, key issues that dominate the narrative and highlights a Track 2 platform that plays a key supporting role in the engagement.

A subsequent article will touch on the challenges and opportunities of the relationship, and some suggestions on key focus areas.

Casual observers might be surprised to note that Australia and New Zealand were amongst the first external countries to have formal, regularised engagements with Asean. Australia was Asean’s first Dialogue Partner in 1974, with New Zealand beginning the process the following year. The breadth and depth of relations have considerably progressed since then, across multiple spectrums — economic, socio-cultural, political-security and developmental.
Last year, Australia hosted the first Asean-Australia Special Summit — where leaders and top policymakers met to focus their collaborative efforts and identify future avenues of cooperation.

New Zealand continues to engage Asean in a variety of platforms — from leaders-led meetings to those of technical experts looking at specific issues. Leaders and policymakers from the two dialogue partners continue to highlight their emphasis on Asean and its role as a central convener of wider regional mechanisms and initiatives.

As with almost all relationships and mechanisms, the concurrent, supporting work done at the Track 2 level is no less important.

Here, ISIS Malaysia, together with Asialink (affiliated with the University of Melbourne) and the Asia New Zealand Foundation, play a key role as conveners of the “Asean-Australia-New Zealand Dialogue”.

The Dialogue aims to encourage forward-looking, pragmatic and policy-oriented discussions that ultimately lead to actionable recommendations to policymakers, the only one of its kind between the three parties.

The growth of the Dialogue in terms of participation, depth and sophistication has seen it earn itself a place as a significant conference for strategic thinkers across Southeast Asia and Oceania to deliberate on major strategic issues facing our regions.

Participants include policymakers and officials, as well as established and emerging researchers, scholars, journalists and other thought-leaders.

The involvement of officials in particular, including from the Asean Secretariat, is a significant testament to both the evolution of this dialogue and the importance of the relationship. The 12th edition of this annual Dialogue was convened in Kuala Lumpur last month.

As with previous iterations of the Dialogue, two broad themes dominated — concerns over the changing regional architectures that govern the strategic landscape of the Asia Pacific (or Indo Pacific as some would call it today), and the opportunities and challenges for multilateral regional trade mechanisms.

In an era of competing regional narratives — competition and adversity — appears dominant. Asean, Australia and New Zealand have good reason to be concerned. The challenge for the region is to not merely navigate the impacts of major power competition and the changing regional narratives, but also to proactively influence its course and outcomes. Thus, cooperation, especially amongst small and middle powers is essential.
In the Dialogue, participants deep-dived into experiences and best practices on managing relationships with the major powers. Given the different levels of bilateral relations and unique histories with China and the US, each had a distinctive insight to offer, especially on understanding and addressing the fundamental internal drives and influences of major policy decisions.

Much of the trade-centric conversation focused on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which encompasses Asean and six Dialogue Partners — Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, South Korea and India. More optimistic analysts believe a deal is possible by the end of the year.

A key issue moving forward, identified by both participants and policymakers, is ensuring that policy discussions on trade and the associated regulatory frameworks are in fact relevant to the business communities.

There are growing ties across a variety of issues where stakeholders concerns are increasingly overlapping, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, countering violent extremism, crime, the forced displacement of people, diseases and pandemics, unregulated overfishing, and environmental concerns.

(Some of these issues will be explored further in Part 2 of this analysis.)

This article first appeared in the New Straits Times on October 30, 2019

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