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Navigating Tensions and Opportunities: Previewing the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit

Kate Langley


Source: Dwi Prasetya, Media Centre KTT ASEAN 2023.


The ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, scheduled for March 2024, is poised at the crossroads of potential challenges and opportunities, exerting considerable influence on global human rights and regional stability. As participating nations gear up for this pivotal event, the discussion extends beyond routine diplomatic agreements, delving into critical issues ranging from human rights to the impact of close partner Indonesia’s newly elected President, Prabowo Subianto.


Publicly, the Summit aims to celebrate and strengthen collaboration between Australia and ASEAN, particularly through building on economic initiatives like the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP). Australia's Invested: Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040 outlines key themes and sectors that Summit events will center around, including Business, Emerging Leaders, Climate and Clean Energy, and Maritime Cooperation streams. This Strategy emphasises the potential for Australia to become a substantial investor in Southeast Asia, and focuses on economic collaboration.


But while from the outside the Special Summit may appear to be yet another economically focused regional gathering, several crucial issues from human rights to military stand-offs bubble under the surface.


Charting a Green Course: Climate and Clean Energy at the Special Summit


The ASEAN-Australia Special Summit offers a significant opportunity to address climate change and promote clean energy initiatives in the Southeast Asian region. Australia, through its Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040, has demonstrated a commitment to environmental sustainability by incorporating Climate and Clean Energy as one of the central streams of the summit. The Summit will include industry-focused events, bringing together entrepreneurs and business leaders to discuss climate-resilient strategies and clean energy solutions. This presents a golden opportunity for collaboration on sustainable practices, technological advancements, and investment in green technologies.

 

As the world grapples with the impacts of climate change, the Special Summit becomes a focal point for nations to collectively work towards a more sustainable future, emphasizing the critical role of economic collaborations in addressing the environmental challenges that transcend borders.

 

Summit Tension Points

 

Crucial Human Rights Imperatives

 

The recently unveiled World Report 2024 by Human Rights Watch accentuates the escalating repression across Asian governments, casting a pervasive shadow on human rights. The absence of a meaningful human rights charter in Asia, coupled with ASEAN's struggles in addressing regional crises, emphasises the urgent need for the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit to collectively address human rights issues. The Summit serves as a critical platform to champion human rights standards amidst assaults on democratic systems and the extension of repression beyond borders.


As the Summit unfolds, the dire human rights situation in Asia takes center stage. The absence of a regional human rights charter underscores the significance of the Summit in shaping a collective response to human rights abuses. Opportunities abound for participating nations to adopt bold approaches, strengthen leadership, and uphold the principles of human rights. Beyond economic collaborations and diplomatic agreements, the Summit's success pivots on its commitment to addressing repressive actions and promoting human rights.


Myanmar's Humanitarian Crisis

 

Among the formidable challenges facing the summit is the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar. Criticism of ASEAN's "five-point consensus"  and its alleged failure to curb human rights abuses by the military junta adds complexity to the issue. Australia is expected to align with ASEAN's approach, engaging with "non-political" officials from Myanmar. This stance has drawn criticism from activists who argue that distinguishing between the junta and its bureaucrats is futile.


The dilemma intensifies as Myanmar's situation remains uncertain. With the junta encountering challenges on the northern border, questions arise about the efficacy of ASEAN's approach. Australia, as the summit convener, faces the arduous task of navigating this complex issue with flexibility and strong diplomacy.


Confronting Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

 

The proposed strong condemnation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in the zero draft statement aligns the summit with broader global geopolitical tensions. Australia's effort to influence ASEAN leaders to issue a forceful statement underscores its commitment to addressing critical global issues.


The outcome on this front will serve as a barometer of Australia's influence within ASEAN on challenging strategic questions. Success or failure will significantly impact Australia's role as the summit convener, reflecting its ability to navigate complex geopolitical landscapes.


South China Sea Disputes: A Delicate Balancing Act

 

The draft joint statement proposed by Australia sheds light on its stance regarding the South China Sea disputes. While ASEAN has expressed concerns over incidents in the region, Australia suggests a more explicit backing of the 2016 international tribunal ruling. The proposed statement calls on both parties to abide by the ruling, emphasizing its final and legally binding nature.


This move reflects Australia's desire for ASEAN to be more forceful in addressing China's behavior in the South China Sea. However, the uncertainty of whether this reference will remain in the final joint statement highlights the delicate balancing act required to navigate regional tensions.


A New Indonesian President

 

Simultaneously, the Summit coincides with the election of a new Indonesian President, Prabowo Subianto, marking his third attempt at the presidency. Indonesia, as the world's third-largest democracy and Australia's vital neighbor, holds immense strategic importance. The outcome of the election necessitates a recalibration of Australia's engagement with Indonesia. Despite Prabowo's past human rights record, including allegations of torture and abuses, the international community, especially Australia, faces the challenge of balancing diplomatic engagement with a critical stance.


Conclusion:

 

As the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit approaches, global attention focuses on how potential conflict points will be addressed. The convergence of economic and clean energy opportunities, humanitarian crises, territorial disputes, and global geopolitical tensions in Melbourne makes this summit a crucial moment in regional diplomacy.

 

The World Report's critique of established democracies in Asia resonates with the global implications discussed at the Summit. As Asian governments engage in repressive conduct beyond their borders, the need for stronger regional leadership becomes apparent. The Summit serves as an opportunity for democratic nations to champion human rights standards regionally and internationally. Australia's role, particularly its commitment to targeted sanctions on human rights abusers, will undergo close scrutiny in the context of broader global implications.


Australia, standing at the intersection of these challenges and opportunities, faces the delicate task of fostering cooperation while addressing pressing issues. Compounded by the recent election of new Indonesian President Prabowo, the summit's outcomes will not only shape the future of ASEAN-Australia relations, but also contribute to the broader narrative of global diplomacy in a rapidly changing world. The world awaits to see whether this summit will be a stepping stone towards regional stability and collaboration or an arena for navigating the complexities of international relations.

 

Kate Langley is a policy analyst in the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment, and Water for the Commonwealth Government. Her international engagement extends to her recognition as an ASEAN-Australian Young Leader and participation in prestigious programs such as the Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations, the United Nations Young Leader’s Program, and the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program sponsored by DFAT. She holds a Masters of International Relations with First Class Honours and a Bachelor of Arts in Politics and International Studies, both from the University of Melbourne.

 


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