Why it matters
“Australia supports a peaceful, stable, resilient, and prosperous region, with ASEAN at its heart. A strong, united, and resilient ASEAN is vital to our region’s success and supports Australia’s own security and prosperity.”
— Joint media release, Australia-ASEAN Leaders’ Summit 2021
The vision in practice
There are numerous complementary and competing policy options to position Australia as an effective security partner in Southeast Asia, ranging from the pragmatic and incremental to the ambitious and transformative. While some policy competition is natural and unavoidable, seeking consistency across Australia’s development, diplomacy and defence policies should be seen as an overarching strategic objective.
Aligning with the recent commitment to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with ASEAN, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade can build upon existing dialogues to develop a suite of strategic and economic dialogues with both ASEAN as an institution and individual Southeast Asian states to share concerns about the security dimensions of economic developments in the region. This would include a high-level ministerial component, associated working-level collaboration and knowledge-exchange among relevant departments and agencies to facilitate shared understanding.
Australian Border Force and Australian Federal Police can build on existing collaboration with Southeast Asian counterparts, especially maritime Southeast Asia, on non-traditional security threats, including humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR), piracy and counterterrorism. Department of Defence can build on existing relationships to find areas of practical cooperation.
There is also scope to build on existing initiatives on cyber security with additional capacity-building support. This could include working together with Southeast Asian countries to agree on and build regional systems, standards and protection mechanisms in line with a shared commitment to open, secure platforms that enable the exchange of social, political and economic information, including those of citizens about their governments. A cyber security strategy for development cooperation could be included in a new development strategy or hybrid national security-development fund. As well as improving state security by helping Southeast Asian states protect themselves, this would have beneficial human security outcomes such as protecting privacy.
Domestic action to tackle international corruption, specifically the flows that come to Australia from parts of Southeast Asia where illicit profits are generated from drugs and other transnational organised crime. These illicit flows grossly undermine development objectives and systems of governance. Australia can play an important role by closing bank accounts and disrupting flows of money-laundering. Greater transparency requirements around local company ownership and the real estate industry is also important to disrupting illicit money flows. A hands-off approach is at odds with Australia’s international obligations in this space. Australia can leverage domestic financial regulation for international impact to foster greater security in the region.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation in partnership with the Department of Home Affairs can strengthen existing programs of outreach and capacity-building on political interference and influence operations. These grey zone activities are a threat to both human and state security and adversely impact all Southeast Asian states to varying degrees. As well as building the political, social and institutional resilience of Southeast Asian governments and societies, such an initiative would provide Australia with an opportunity to engage with governments in the region as a supportive partner. It would allow Australia to learn from Southeast Asian experiences, while also providing Australia an opportunity to share its lessons learned.
Promote climate adaptation and resilience regionally. A proof-of-concept initiative would be to leverage the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Systems Science, which supports research into Australian mitigation and adaptation strategies, to be more regionally focused. Australia’s research base and university sector is a key asset of power and influence which can partner with Southeast Asian governments and regional partner organisations to support collaborative research with clear public policy benefits. Australian-funded research into actionable regional resilience, adaptation and mitigation strategies is practical and mutual benefit.
Promote greater renewable energy exports to meet Southeast Asia’ rapidly rising energy demand and concern for energy security. Beyond the significant economic benefits this will bring to Australia, it will also help the region meet its energy needs without locking-in long-term emissions. This has the double benefit of supporting Southeast Asia’s stability and growth while reducing collective exposure to climate risk.
Support ASEAN efforts to position itself at the core of critical technology value chains. A proof-of-concept initiative would be to use blended finance to support investment into Indonesia’s emerging car battery industry to help it become a global electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing hub. Australia would secure a key critical-tech supply chain and help expand export markets for Australian lithium. This will reduce climate risk for Australia and the region by accelerating the transition to EVs and deepen two-way investment and business-to-business links. This would also build on existing initiatives like the Cyber and Critical Technology Cooperation Program.
The Foreign Investment Review Board in partnership with Treasury could develop a series of dialogues and workshops with investment review bodies in Southeast Asian states. Foreign investments and economic connectivity are a key vector for security threats and vulnerabilities where a two-way exchange of knowledge and expertise would benefit Australia and Southeast Asian. The aim would be to support Southeast Asian states to enjoy the human security benefits of investments and infrastructure while avoiding the potential state security risks associated with some investments. This initiative would empower Southeast Asian states to negotiate deals that best serve their development needs, including on gender equality.
Expand the use of Australia’s updated autonomous sanctions regime. The aim would be to promote good governance and disincentivise democratic backsliding regionally by targeting regime figures guilty of corruption and human rights abuses while sparing citizens from the negative impacts of uniform sanctions. This could involve greater cooperative partnerships with civil society organisations across the region, helping to maintain human security partnerships with peoples across Southeast Asia especially in countries where governments are not representative of their citizens.
Announce a comprehensive investment in civic space involving increased funding directly to civil society individuals and entities, strengthening free media and supporting actors in Southeast Asia that foster open states and free and fair elections.
As a strategy to harmonise an approach to state and human security which recognises the way both are underpinned by gender equality, Australia works with Southeast Asia to co-create a feminist foreign policy agenda that identifies common goals and priorities that are relevant to the region. This should build on Australia’s track record in Women, Peace and Security and extend and deepen the focus on transforming systems of inequality across all arms of statecraft.
Work with the region to develop robust de-escalation mechanisms and communication channels, including at the military-to-military level, that can help deconflict crises when they arise.
The Australia Institute
International Women’s Development Agency
United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney
ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance
Development Intelligence Lab
Youth National Security Strategy
Australian Council for International Development
Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University
Australian Civil-Military Centre
Melissa Conley Tyler
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons license. You can reprint or republish with attribution.
You can cite this paper as: Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue, What does it look like for Australia to be an Effective Security Partner in Southeast Asia. (Canberra 2022): www.asiapacific4d.com
Image on this page by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
This paper is the product of the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue’s inaugural program, ‘Shaping a shared future — deepening Australia’s influence in Southeast Asia and the Pacific’, funded by the Australian Civil-Military Centre.