Thursday, September 1, 2016

Whither Australia in ASEAN?

This week former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating repeated his proposal that Australia join ASEAN.  According to the Australian Financial Review, “Australia ‘should become a member of ASEAN’, a membership that would ‘help Australia and help ASEAN’.”  Mr. Keating raised this idea previously in 2012.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) provides thorough analysis of why Australia would never formally request ASEAN membership, here and here. It also discusses the reasons in favor of Australian membership here and here.

I’ll stick to a more legalistic analysis.  Article 6 of the ASEAN Charter sets forth the criteria for membership as follows:

“(a) location in the recognized geographical region of Southeast Asia;
(b) recognition by all ASEAN Member States;
(c) agreement to be bound and to abide by the Charter; and
(d) ability and willingness to carry out the obligations of Membership.”

The second criterion is not at issue, but the others are.

First, Australia is not part of the “recognized geographical region of Southeast Asia.”   Australia is considered to be its own continent, or a part of Oceania.  One of the ASPI articles cited above brushes this aside as Australia is a neighbor of ASEAN, like Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste, other potential ASEAN members.  However, Timor-Leste is a recognized part of Southeast Asia.  Papua New Guinea is not, due to colonial history and issues related to Irian Jaya.

Second, would Australia agree “to be bound and to abide by the Charter”?  Article 7.2 of Charter states that “The ASEAN Summit shall be the supreme policy-making body of ASEAN.”   ASEAN membership would necessarily mean that Australia would be subject to decisions made by the leaders of ASEAN, who reflect a variety of systems including varying forms of democracy, Communists, a military junta and a monarch.  Would Australians accept this?

Third, would Australia have the “ability and willingness to carry out the obligations of Membership”?  At first glance, this should not be an issue for a developed country such as Australia.  However, agreeing to submit to arbitration (including investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) under the ASEAN Comprehensive Investment Agreement) is part of the obligations of ASEAN membership. With Australia having a more skeptical view of ISDS, would the country really want to join a regional economic bloc where ISDS is part of the operating system?

Mr. Keating’s remarks seem to be intended to provoke discussion and promote greater Australian interest in ASEAN.  That’s a good thing.  However, these things take on a life of their own, meaning that they should be scrutinized on their substantive merits in addition to their intellectual points.   The ASPI articles and my own analysis indicate that this proposal will not get past the university seminar room.

Apologies for not posting recently.  I have been very busy advising Timor-Leste on its ASEAN accession and on a feasibility study on the Trans-Pacific Partnership for the Thai Ministry of Commerce. Also, frankly, there have not been very many AEC developments to discuss recently. Hopefully this will change soon.