It’s an invitation that we’re unlikely to get — and one we’d probably have to refuse.
The Indonesian President Joko Widodo caused a flurry of speculation yesterday when he suggested that Australia should join ASEAN — the Association of South East Asian Nations.
It would be “good idea” for Australia to join, the President, known as Jokowi, told Fairfax.
Australia would bring more “stability” to the region and ASEAN, both politically and economically.
Australian officials were perplexed.
Was he just being polite? Possibly. Was he taken completely out of context? Maybe, but it didn’t look like it.
The timing was interesting too.
His comments were published the day that a special ASEAN summit kicked off in Sydney, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull making a concerted push to deepen ties with leaders across the region.
The suggestion is not new — plenty of Australian political luminaries and foreign policy heavyweights have mused about the benefits of joining the group.
It also poses some fundamental questions about our identity. After all, if we are part of Asia then why shouldn’t we join the major gathering of South-East Asian leaders?
But there are several reasons why the invitation will probably never be extended in Australia.
And even more reasons why we’d be very unlikely to say yes.
Jokowi’s endorsement carries plenty of weight. After all, he’s the leader of ASEAN’s most populous and powerful country.
But it’s not clear how widespread the enthusiasm is for the idea in the Indonesian establishment.
Aaron Connelly from the Lowy Institute says Jokowi’s answer to the journalists was probably misunderstood. And he argues that even if Jokowi is supportive, few in Indonesia agree with him.
“I’ve seen no evidence that anyone else in the Indonesian system has said anything supportive of it,” he said.
And when Jokowi’s Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi was asked about the idea she was much more circumspect, sticking to bland affirmations of the relationship.
Still, let’s say Indonesia decides to back Australia all the way to enter ASEAN. Are there other barriers?
There are plenty. ASEAN works on consensus — so if any of its 10 members remain hostile to Australia then it will be all but impossible for us to join.
And, at least for now, several ASEAN nations are not convinced we belong.
Why? They say we like to lecture other nations. We are too close to the Americans. We are too confrontational. We don’t truly see ourselves as part of Asia.
And adding one more ASEAN member means finding that elusive consensus becomes even more difficult.
Do we really want it anyway?
Australia really does want to draw closer to ASEAN, and particularly to the region’s emerging powers.
In the last few days Australia has signed a new strategic partnership with Vietnam.
The Government’s also signed a new maritime agreement with Indonesia.
And we continue to draw ever closer to Singapore. Watching Mr Turnbull hold a press conference with his Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong was like watching two old friends furiously agree with each other for half an hour.
But there are plenty of reasons our diplomats would probably prefer we steer clear of ASEAN.
First we’d be uncomfortable with the ASEAN chair country speaking for us in talks with major players like China and the US.
Second, if we join the summit then we’d inevitably come under pressure to tone down our criticism of human rights abuses on our doorstep.
Finally, we are already a Dialogue Partner with ASEAN and part of the East Asia Summit, which includes key players like the US and India.
So we already have plenty of room to ramp up our engagement with ASEAN — and its members — without joining the club.
So it’s not surprising that Australian officials were quick to play down the prospect of Australia ever joining the summit — even as they rushed to say they were delighted that Jokowi felt so warmly about us.
Thanks! But no thanks.