Should Australia join ASEAN? Lessons from Vietnam

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shakes hands with Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong during their media conference during the one-off summit of 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Sydney, Australia, March 18, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray

By: Huong Le Thu, ASPI

The accession of Vietnam, a formerly antagonistic communist neighbour, to ASEAN was the result of several major geostrategic power shifts that continue to impact on the grouping’s development today.

Conflict in Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s provided the context for the genesis of ASEAN. Despite the hard feelings original member states held towards each other during the period of decolonisation and Cold War tension, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines agreed to work together to shield themselves from the domino effect of communist expansion. ASEAN’s diplomatic response to Vietnam’s 1978 intervention in Cambodia remains the organisation’s biggest success.

The threat of communism brought together a group of dissimilar interests and provided a reason for ASEAN to unite. When it subsided in the 1990s, Vietnam’s regional integration became a necessity and the former adversary acceded to ASEAN in 1995. This marked one of the most meaningful transitions in the region’s history — Southeast Asia had embraced its political and ideological diversity and overcome Cold War bipolarity.

ASEAN was a critical platform for Vietnam to break out from its diplomatic isolation, re-engage with its neighbourhood and indirectly move towards normalising its relationship with the United States. Vietnam’s accession to ASEAN entailed an adjustment in the original members’ strategic thinking and additional considerations of ASEAN’s economic goals. Post-war Vietnam was significantly less developed than the ‘ASEAN 6’. It was grouped into the ‘second tier ASEAN’ group alongside newcomers Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar for which separate arrangements were made in regards to economic integration.

Vietnam’s successful transformation from an external threat into a fellow member state can be seen as the best example of a member state adopting ASEAN principles. Vietnam is now one of the most active members of the organisation. Under the pressure generated by rivalry between the United States and China, Hanoi has been consistent in insisting that ASEAN play a role in dispute management.

Vietnam has also vocally supported multilateral ASEAN initiatives, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, to uphold the rules-based order and stability of the region. The continuity of Vietnam’s domestic leadership, alongside Singapore, means that its ruling elites still maintain the original vision held by the founders of ASEAN. Unlike Southeast Asian democracies such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand (which have experienced power transitions that somewhat undermined their commitment to ASEAN), Vietnam’s outlook on the strategic importance of the group has remained consistent.

Vietnam’s accession has been a mutually beneficial process: ASEAN was the bridge to Vietnam’s liberalisation and connection with the world when the United States was still isolating it from global opportunities. Likewise, the inclusion of Indochinese states reinvented ASEAN into a regional grouping that included maritime and mainland Southeast Asia.

For half a century the region has shaped ASEAN as an institution while ASEAN has framed the conduct of regional politics. After decades of expansion, however, ASEAN is struggling to adjust to new shifts in power, particularly the rise of China. The organisation also suffers from a need to reform itself internally.

Increasing influence by China on individual member states has led to the abuse of ASEAN norms, including the principle of consensus. Growing frustration about this ineffective practice has led to internal discussion about the possibility of a new ‘ASEAN–X’ approach, where issues are resolved among those that are willing or are directly concerned with the problem at hand. While this idea is still in the making, it signals that the innate diversity and different priorities within ASEAN make it increasingly hard to reach ‘consensus’. The pending membership application of Timor Leste, if successful, will only lead ASEAN towards even deeper heterogeneity.

Timor Leste’s pending membership may only further strain ASEAN unity. But it does offer a useful case-study for those who also contemplate joining. This takes the edge off one of the oldest arguments against Australia’s joining ASEAN: that it differs too much from the group. While Australia’s difference is indisputable, that is not the main show-stopper.

The main obstacle to Australian membership is not related to how unified ASEAN is but rather the lack of ASEAN leadership. Before the membership debate, Canberra should ask if it has a vision of the leadership it can offer to ASEAN and what sort of leadership it is willing to follow.

The strategic considerations for Australia to join ASEAN differ from those that were imperative for Vietnam or the Indochinese members in the post-Cold War context. Joining ASEAN is optional for Canberra, and the rationale for Australia to consider joining the club is to better position itself in a region with a stronger China. But whether belonging to the ASEAN group can shield Australia from a more omnipresent China is an open question.

Even so, this debate is an opportunity for Australia to lever existing ASEAN platforms such as the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum to assert its status as the oldest and closest ASEAN dialogue partner. Unlike other key major dialogue partners whose current political contexts have shifted their immediate focus away from ASEAN (such as the United States, China, Russia, India, Japan and the EU), Australia is in the position to demonstrate support for this regional institution.

Vietnam’s ASEAN success story should give Australia a reference point that ASEAN is able to adjust geopolitical needs. ASEAN membership does not necessarily give more leverage. It is a question of what Canberra wants from ASEAN and whether it has really made most of the existing frameworks of dialogue and strategic partnership.

Huong Le Thu is a senior analyst at Australia Strategic Policy Institute.

This article first appeared on the East Asia Forum.

Reflecting on the ASEAN–Australian relationship


  1. ASEAN, what the hell is that? Looks like a mob gathering of strange bed fellows – frolicking in the same bed with different dreams. When self interest takes center stage in an association such as ASEAN – such union will be difficulty and impossible.

  2. Australia is a Lackey of US & UK to harm Asia & non Anglozionist countries. Only foolish Asians trust these white eyed wolves. US coined a term called Australiasia, meaning Asia lead by Australia. But its too big a hat for 20M Oz to take even with US support.

    See what Vietnam membership has brought to Asean? Non consensual one after another, by forcing its selfish agenda into every Asean meeting with US & its stooge Philipine Aquino to stir up South China Seas tension. LHL was later hamstrung by Obama to join in.

    Vietnam is the biggest island grabber in SCS, stealing China islands with US help. Juz google, you will find many info, nearly half of SCS islands are took by Vietnam, who tried to build structures on top long before China.

    China was only force to take action to secure its islands with military build up recently with US Obama trying to took SCS in control of China sealanes trade, together along Malacca Straits using Spore Changi navy base with India Navy joining now.

    To highlight how West msm propaganda fake news are badly distorting our views, to implant imaginary enemies like Russia, China, Iran, North Korea…. thus creating much hatred among nations towards supporting US cruel war waging in the whole world(almost every wars are waged by US after WW2), let’s look at how monstrous global msm cranked up South China Seas dispute with shameless Western & some puppet Asean leaders lying daily to blast the world with fake news 24/7 last year.

    The whole world(incl me and you) is brainwashed to believe blindly its China illegal occupying islands, without bother to check who is so actively instigating this SCS dispute and historical facts.

    Then suddenly UN declared it had nothing to do with this kangaroo fake PCA”Permanent Court of Arbitration at Hague”. This kangaroo court and Judges were instigated by US Obama, installed by Japan PM Abe stooge(Mr Shunji Yanai), paid by Philippine President Aquino. Of course China outright refused to participate. Yet Obama, EU, Japan, puppet Asean leaders took every chance to quote UN name shamelessly.

    Some righteous western scholars and a Singapore researcher KT Tan had challenged and debunked these lying US Sea law experts(incl Princeton University professors) in their forums, citing UN and International sea law impeccably clear that Unclos cannot apply to judge a country’s sovereignty claim in SCS, and their judgement is utterly absurb and flawed. Yet these rogue experts & msm continued to spew lies shamelessly. Irony, the chief instigator US is the only one refuse to be a signatory of Unclos, not a party to the SCS dispute and never abide to any World Court judgements.

    Professor Myron Nordquist, of the University of Virginia School of Law, has opined that the ruling was a “huge mistake” and should be “criticised severely”.

    “The PCA is not a court. It only provides a registry and secretarial assistance to “arbitral tribunals constituted to resolve specific disputes” for a fee.”

    Singpore researcher KT Tan wrote a article to absolutely debunked the absurb judgement clearly with facts supporting these islands belong to China legally:

    Buried by US & Asean lies to damage its core interest, China sent out its nuclear submarines to US bases, with Navy and bombers group conducting live firing in SCS till the eve of fake PCA Hague judgement day to confront the two US strike groups, which went hiding at Philippine east, dare not even enter SCS. It exposed US Pacific fleet Command Admiral Harry Harris (a Japanese) boast “US is ready, war start tonight” is nothing but hot air. China call US a “Paper Tiger” openly. Did you got to read that in msm? Likely not.

    Afraid of escalating to war, Obama immediately despatched US top General and NSA advisor Susan Rice to visit Beijing for settlement. China General sternly warned US General not to play with fire, including msm smearing propaganda must stop immediately. Global msm & Asean claimants then suddenly went total silent revealing how powerful is US CIA assets in controlling global msms and countries. Under Trumps its reviving again now.

    Im not from China or any expert, yet i could access such information in public websites by google(recently so badly censored?!), certainly all world leaders have better information, yet many continue to lies blatantly. Lead by the US Obama & Japan Abe, together with Vietnam, Philippine Aquino and Singapore PM Lee had taken every chance to vehemently demand China to obey the illegal setup arbitration knowing clearly its not recognized by UN with absurb judgement. Certainly PM Lee has access to KT Tan research paper published in Singapore newspaper.

    To debunk the 11/9 doted lines US lies will take another article length comment which you can read yourself.. Older US, Canada produced world maps still clearly show China is the legitimate owners of all SCS islands. During 1800 Britannica and British world Atlas all show SCS belong to China. China announced in 1947 to reinforce these 11 historical lines, which Zhou Enlai change to 9 later, without any dispute from the world including US, UK and SCS border countries. It cannot be in one Obama’s stroke become illegimate. There are whole archived of historical facts, not an overnight drive by claim.

    The one who controlled msm control the world, with their brainwashed people. That’s how many foolish people harbour ill wills towards countries that do them no harm, like Russia, China, North Korea, Myanmar, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Venezuela, Cuba,… a long list that US targeted.

    If you can hold all countries leaders hostage with their hidden secrets by tapping all their communication like US 5Eyes 24/7, they will sell their country to remain in power.