Australia not joining Asean, but touched by endorsement

SYDNEY • Australia is not joining Asean, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made clear yesterday, even after receiving a tacit endorsement from Indonesia to do so.

Earlier this week, ahead of the Asean-Australia Special Summit in Sydney, Indonesian President Joko Widodo was asked by the Sydney Morning Herald what he thought of Australia joining the regional bloc as its 11th member.

Mr Widodo replied: "I think it is a good idea."

He added: "Because our region will be better, (for) stability, economic stability, and also political stability. Sure, it will be better."

When asked about it yesterday by Australian media, however, Mr Turnbull demurred.

Australia is "really honoured and touched by the warmth of these remarks", he said, but added: "Asean matters are a matter for Asean."

"We have the greatest of respect for Asean, the way it reaches its own conclusions. We are a dialogue partner with Asean, and we work closely with Asean, and we respect the centrality of Asean and its significance and fundamental central importance in our region," he said.

Australia has been an Asean dialogue partner since 1974. Both sides began biennial leaders' summits in 2016, with the first in Vientiane.

In a report last month, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute argued that Canberra should aim for Asean membership by 2024 - the 50th anniversary of it becoming a dialogue partner.

The report also noted that the special summit this weekend would be a good launchpad to raise the issue.

"As the geo-strategic and geo-economic pressures build in Asia, Asean, as a middle-power grouping, needs the extra middle-power heft offered by Australia and New Zealand," it said.

"The Sydney summit is the moment to launch the long conversation about Australia joining Asean."

The Sydney Morning Herald noted that various Australian prime ministers have flirted with the idea of asking to join, but have never proposed it while in office.

This is the first time that an Indonesian leader has voiced approval of the idea.

Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating was among those who have argued for full Australian membership in Asean.

He told the Sydney Morning Herald that Australia could bring skills and expertise in foreign policy to the grouping.

"I have always believed that our nearest, largest neighbour was the one most likely to see the sense and the benefit of Australia joining Asean. I am very gratified to hear that President Jokowi has said what he has said."

Yasmine Yahya

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2018, with the headline 'Australia not joining Asean, but touched by endorsement'. Print Edition | Subscribe