Flat White

Why we won’t get into ASEAN any time soon

21 March 2018

2:21 PM

21 March 2018

2:21 PM

Indonesians, especially Jakartans – have a wicked sense of humour. Their biting jokes, fine-tuned by years of authoritarian rule, were designed to make hard lives easier, by giving people means to laugh at the authority figures – but only if you could read between the lines.

So what to make of Indonesian President Joko ’Jokowi’ Widodo’s charmingly whimsical Sydney speech, in which he blamed Netflix, proposed that Australian business spend more in Indonesia and spoke of the need for politicians to engage with constituents, “otherwise people would turn to television’s House of Cards” instead at the ASEAN meeting

The meeting, convened by Prime Minister Turnbull to bring leaders of all the ASEAN member states together lost some impact, despite valiant efforts by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and the PM, to keep things formal, official and polite, when hundreds of local protesters, turned up to make fiery denunciations against their former national leaders against Cambodia’s Hun Sen and Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi.

The sight of saffron-clad Buddhists monks as well as the very elderly lady with her granddaughter, the latter who spoke out defiantly against the Cambodian leader while others shouted slogans in Khmer and English made for great television viewing, delighting the media but distressing no doubt for the PM and his special appointment former Fairfax journalist Laura Tingle, shortly to join the ABC but handling media during ASEAN.

It was not the well-rehearsed, ritualised ceremonial proceeding the government would have hoped for: it was, in fact, a robust demonstration of Australian democracy in action.

ASEAN is – speak softly here – is considered an annoying impediment by China.


It would be much more convenient to deal with individual nations and bargain or threaten them down one by one than deal with a mostly-united group. China can buy small ASEAN nations like Laos (still a Communist-run nation-state) and have plenty of change left over. China can ‘persuade’ or threaten others to work its will, with promises of a lucrative contract here, a development ‘loan’ there or an outright sale: Chinese-made tankers, anyone?

That’s why Australia will probably never be allowed to become a member, despite all blandishments and state dinners employed by the Prime Minister. Australia, the US ally and friendly with Japan, is the unwanted guest at the ASEAN table. It’s in the rules that every ASEAN member country must agree to the entry of a new member.

For Australia, that will just be a bridge too far.

So sure, ran the thinking of ASEAN guests of honour, we’ve been invited to Sydney, of course we’ll come – it would not be good manners to refuse and Sydney, well, it’s great this time of the year, any time of the year, actually. Maybe we can even iron out some of our own problems, courtesy of those Aussies who are picking up the bills.

So, despite the gritted teeth behind the gracious smiles, as the protesters’ shouts, in English and Khmer grew louder and the television cameras captured the moments, the invited guests pushed on, smiles in place. Worse was in store.

Yesterday the ABC announced that an Australian law firm ‘Human Rights for All’ headed by human rights advocate Alison Battisson was pushing to have Aung San Suu Kyi charged on grounds of forcible relocations of Myanmar’s Rohingya people.

It brought a swift response from the office of Attorney-General Christian Porter that the ASEAN visitors held diplomatic status and there could be no question of charges on Australian soil. So, reasoned our Asian visitors, heads of State visiting Australia on official invitations risked being humiliated and even – heaven help us – arrested?

The Asian media travelling with the visitors took good note of everything they saw and heard and many may well have concluded that while the Australian brand of democracy is fine for Australia, it simply wouldn’t work in their own countries.

When President Widodo returns to Indonesia, with an election he hopes to win on the horizon, he’ll have much to reflect on, after exchanging views with his ASEAN counterparts for a rather nice – except for those distressing protesters – short stay Down Under, courtesy of Australian taxpayers.

And as the celebratory signboards are taken down and the damask dining table cloths folded up, Malcolm Turnbull may have time to reflect that while trade links may well be created – they were, actually, and previously through the TPP – Jokowi’s message, in his forthcoming presidential campaign, may just carry the message, “Let’s not be like Australia”

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