To Optimize U.S.-Australia Cooperation in Southeast Asia, Focus on Region’s Priorities

The United States’ and Australia’s roles, strategies, and contributions to the Indo-Pacific are distinct, but there are an increasing number of areas where they can join efforts to make a stronger impact. It is important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of Washington and Canberra individually, and coordinate where cooperation would be welcome. In Southeast Asia, in particular, U.S. and Australian strategies have recently been seen as too security and defense-focused. While some appreciate that, others worry that such an approach contributes to rising tensions in the region.

With the new Labor government in place, Australia has an opportunity to reset its foreign policy, including engagement with its “near abroad”—Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, a year and a half after President Joe Biden took office, the change of administration in the United States has not elevated Southeast Asia’s position in Washington. Despite the administration’s stated commitment to the region’s centrality, Southeast Asia is yet to find its place within, let alone be at the center of, the United States’ attention to the Indo-Pacific. The war in Ukraine seems to have further exposed the drift between the United States and most of Southeast Asia—with the notable exception of Singapore, which also imposed sanctions on Russia. A majority of the region prefers the “neutral” position of not taking sides, refraining from criticizing, let alone sanctioning Russia. Moreover, recently, the U.S. Department of Defense in July 2022 withdrew from the two-day Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Plus Experts’ Working Group on Counter-Terrorism held in Moscow. The rotational chairmanship meant that this round was led by Myanmar—represented by the Burmese military—which was cochairing with Russia. Given that ASEAN maintains “neutrality” towards both Myanmar and Russia, following the coup and the war respectively, Washington may find it difficult to reconcile its stated respect for ASEAN centrality and its style of multilateralism with the United States’ own values-driven foreign policy. Other foreign policy priorities under Biden, including the democracy agenda and a preference of working with close allies in minilateral settings, mean that the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy has been shaping up as being more exclusive than inclusive thus far.

There are a number of areas, however, where a broader regional engagement will benefit the United States’ position. The efforts can be multiplied by coordinating with Australia—where the new Albanese government has signaled more attention and commitment to Southeast Asia. Australia’s standing in the region, albeit overall positive, is not without challenges. The previous Morrison government fluctuated between neglect and boosting development assistance to the region. While Australia wants to be seen in the region as a “partner of choice,” the level of diplomatic engagement between Canberra and Southeast Asian capitals still pales in comparison to other resident powers, like Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan. To be fair, Australia’s financial capacity is finite and, moreover, its diplomacy has been under financial pressure in recent years. But as an immediate neighbor to the region, Australia cannot afford an optional or fluctuating engagement with Southeast Asia. Ahead of achieving the goal of becoming a “partner of choice”—which is arguably achievable—it needs to consolidate its reputation as a resident and committed part of the region, not an extra-regional actor. Canberra has the advantage of being able to join forces with the United States and both Quad and AUKUS partners in amplifying its efforts in the region. But Australia needs to consolidate its strategy independently from any of them. While coordinating efforts with the United States, Australia needs to be mindful not to propagate the perception of adding to regional tensions, fueling divisions among camps, and adding to the arms race. Rather, focusing on the region’s priorities and responding to its needs, in a constructive and contributive manner, can better achieve long-term goals for all.

Individually, the United States and Australia both have records of pursuing new engagement initiatives, as well as persistent shortcomings. Both countries have contributed to a number of multilateral and minilateral initiatives that benefit the region. This includes long-standing institutional support for ASEAN, development support, and relatively new initiatives like the Quad vaccine partnership or the trilateral infrastructure partnership with Japan. Bilaterally, to advance regional engagement, Australia and the United States need to work more on a positive agenda—one that contributes genuinely to enhancing the resiliency of the region—rather than solely on the negative objective of preventing China’s dominance. These two approaches may mutually reinforce each other, but operating with the sole strategic intention to deny China’s growing influence will have a limited outcome.

Southeast Asian governments face many mounting and often competitive priorities, while the U.S. and Australian governments must contend with limited resources to address such priorities. A newly released report proposes a framework of TIGER priorities for the regiontechnological transformation, managing political instability, minimizing the impact of geopolitics, adapting and mitigating the environmental effects of the climate crisis, and post-Covid-19 economic recovery. These are vast and complex issues in which the region would welcome a constructive and positive contribution. Not all of them allow for support from external partners, even if well-meaning—like managing domestic political instability—but they all require long-term attention. While, arguably, the United States has much to say about managing the temperature of geopolitical tensions, it does not fully control, solely or with allies like Australia, the spiraling rivalry with China. While it is also unlikely that Washington, or even Canberra, will change their strategic course of competing with Beijing in the foreseeable future, they can take note of regional sensitivities better. In pursuing competition with China, the United States and Australia should minimize as much as possible collateral damage in Southeast Asia and avoid any unnecessary escalation or even provocative language.

Elsewhere, the United States and Australia can make significant contributions to address the region’s priorities. For example, the two allies need to recognize the region’s growing need for technological expertise, training, and human resources in the growing tech sector and meet it with more IT, cyber, digital literacy training, education, and re-skilling programs, as well as by investing in innovation hubs and e-learning centers. These initiatives should prioritize women and disadvantaged groups that often have limited access to such opportunities. Similarly, efforts to plan frameworks and adjust policies to climate mitigation and adaptation require a significant degree of technological expertise. From renewable energy transitions to the reduction of emissions and step-by-step blueprint to meet Glasgow pledges, regional governments, agencies, and businesses need more data, expertise, and training. These are areas where both Canberra and Washington can join forces, particularly now that the Labor government’s view on the issue is more in-sync with Biden’s climate agenda. Economic recovery is another unifying issue, as nations both big and small desire a post-pandemic rebound. Regional efforts, including progressing with trade agreements and seeking new circular economy arrangements, are all geared toward facilitating economic growth. This should be recognized and supported where possible. Canberra and Washington can support regional governments better by coordinating and leveraging their respective strengths and advantageous positions to respond to the pressing needs of the region and provide support in a longer-term framework.

The United States and Australia must study Southeast Asia’s priorities, align them with their own strategic goals, and adjust efforts to available resources before making big pledges and announcements. Both Canberra and Washington need to consider these priorities, including those laid out in the TIGER framework, in crafting both their individual and collective strategies in Southeast Asia. Only by understanding the urgent needs of the region and aligning them to their own capacities and interests can the United States and Australia guarantee a successful and sustainable engagement strategy. Focusing efforts in the areas of TIGER would add to Washington’s and Canberra’s constructive roles in the region.

Huong Le Thu is a non-resident adjunct fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Huong Le Thu
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program