The Platform

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese standing in-between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Australia stands as the West’s emblematic beacon in the Indo-Pacific.

At the recent Australia-ASEAN Summit, Anthony Albanese, Australia’s Prime Minister, delivered a vigorous pledge to Southeast Asia, symbolizing a definitive stride by Australia and its Western allies to uphold the international rules-based order, and implicitly cautioning Beijing against assuming dominion over the Southeast Asian tapestry.

Amidst the geopolitical tides, Australia’s centre-left Labor government aspires to draw closer to the region, keenly aware of its geographical enmeshment in the wider Western alliance — a coalition that often views Australia through the prism of partnerships like AUKUS, much to Beijing’s chagrin.

The stakes are high, with Australia’s security and prosperity inextricably linked to the region’s future. In this light, Canberra emerges as a bulwark and guarantor of stability, extending beyond the traditional Western presence epitomized by allies like the Philippines.

Albanese articulates a vision where Southeast Asia is not merely adjacent but central to Australia’s fate, positioning the nation as a fulcrum of Indo-Pacific equilibrium, bridging divergent hemispheres.

Navigating the tumultuous waters of superpower rivalry and the spiraling arms and security impasse necessitates a fortified Western support system. Yet, this must be achieved without upending the region’s historical non-alignment and provoking Beijing.

As tensions escalate, Australia assumes the role of a less confrontational interlocutor, offering assurances to the region without the overt risk of an economic or diplomatic backlash that might follow a direct challenge from Washington.

The escalation of Beijing’s assertive maritime postures challenges the region’s alignment with the Western-led order. Simultaneously, Canberra’s window to bolster regional collaboration in maritime governance and to project a unified stance against Beijing’s maritime assertiveness is narrowing.

Canberra’s agenda, rooted in the domains of energy, commerce, and strategic minerals, rests upon the sanctity of peace and adherence to international norms, now increasingly threatened by Beijing’s maritime maneuvers.

The inexorable focus on a rules-based maritime order and security considerations underscores a broader imperative: the preservation of balance without coercing regional players into intractable alignments.

Yet, the region’s heterogeneous responses and alliances pose significant barriers to a unified Western strategy, necessitating nuanced, bilateral, and targeted engagements, with strategic military and economic partnerships, notably with Manila and Hanoi, embodying this approach.

Amid escalating regional arms races and security dilemmas — stoked by Australia’s substantial investments in nuclear submarines and the contentious AUKUS pact — nations like Indonesia and Malaysia, while strategically neutral, grapple with their economic entanglement with Beijing, a dynamic that complicates Western efforts to curtail Chinese influence.

Canberra and Washington strive to offer a compelling counter-proposal to Beijing’s economic sway, seeking to project a stabilizing influence while aspiring to a less conditional Western economic engagement, a balancing act that remains a formidable challenge.

At the crux of Canberra’s diplomatic endeavors is the Melbourne Declaration, endorsed by Australia and ASEAN nations, advocating for the peaceful resolution of South China Sea disputes in accordance with international law. The document, however, stops short of referencing the pivotal 2016 arbitration ruling against Beijing’s claims, underscoring ASEAN’s caution and internal rifts.

Australia’s quest for a robust ASEAN response remains constrained by the bloc’s deeply entrenched non-confrontational ethos, yet Canberra persists, valuing even incremental progress as a means to ensure long-term regional commitment.
Aligning with ASEAN’s central tenets of neutrality is thus pivotal for Australia to preserve regional support, leveraging its geographical significance as a strategic intermediary between China and East Asian markets.

Canberra’s message resonates, signaling its dedication through economic and security commitments, underscored by a $1.3 billion fund to foster trade and support Southeast Asia’s clean energy and infrastructure initiatives, augmented by maritime security investments and educational opportunities.

This strategic orientation seeks to entrench a free and open Indo-Pacific, aligning with Western objectives to safeguard this normative framework, fostering trust, and reinforcing Australia’s soft power and comprehensive security footprint.

The Albanese government has judiciously expanded economic access for Southeast Asians, acknowledging the cultural and political disparities that have historically shaped the dialogue between the region and the West.

Australia stands as the West’s emblematic beacon in the Indo-Pacific, its role as a stabilizing force premised on a refreshed paradigm of trust-based engagement — a stark contrast to the ties woven with Beijing.

The Summit has galvanized efforts to bridge historical divides, charting a course for sustained collaboration amidst Beijing’s reactionary postures. The imperative now is to maintain this momentum, ensuring the West’s reassuring presence endures to uphold peace and the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, a cornerstone for regional and global stability.

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya for more than 9 years. His areas of focus include strategic and security studies, America’s foreign policy and power projection, regional conflicts and power parity analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds and analytical articles for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.