Does Australia need an ASEAN special envoy?

Foreign Minister Penny Wong is visiting Vietnam and Malaysia this week on her second trip to Southeast Asia since taking office in late May. In opposition, Labor engaged to deepen Australia’s engagement with South East Asia, including by appointing an “ASEAN Special Envoy” to the sub-region. This remains the intention of Labor in government and has been reiterated earlier this month by Defense Minister Richard Marles at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore.

Before an appointment is made, it is worth asking: what use would the new special envoy be? As with all of these roles, the answer partly depends on who fills it. Labor said the envoy would be a “high-level roving regional ambassador”. Among Australia’s crop of former senior and serving officials, the pool of qualified candidates who can credibly access high-level decision-makers across Southeast Asia is small. The contemporary incarnation of a Dick Woolcott might be hard to find, but not impossible. The government can instead comb the ranks of retired ministers, but political figures with regional gravity are also rare – a situation made more difficult by Labour’s long absence.

In terms of objective, the ASEAN envoy will have to “complement existing missions and overcome bureaucratic blockages”. Australia has experienced a ambassador ASEAN accredited resident in Jakarta since 2008 so job is taken. Labor has also pledged to set up a South East Asia office within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to “ensure whole-of-government coordination of Australian efforts”. Analogous to the Pacific Coordination Office within DFAT, currently headed by ewen mcdonald, the new Southeast Asia office will need to be staffed and a new head found. The ASEAN special envoy should play a role between these positions and that of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Doing it without duplicating function or stepping on toes could be tricky.

Creating a special envoy for Southeast Asia probably makes more sense than a collective envoy serving ASEAN, especially if the intention is to strengthen Australia’s bilateral and minilateral ties within the sub-region. . It would also have the advantage of including Timor-Leste.

Marles said he aims to “strengthen military ties with Southeast Asia,” but the Department of Defense has its own bureaucracy and ongoing diplomatic efforts to that end. The Labor Party also said it planned to “put in place a comprehensive ASEAN economic strategy until 2040”. A roving envoy could focus on expediting this goal, though that would likely require a trade specialist and detract from their larger role.

Suppose the government identifies a suitable candidate who has what it takes to remove bureaucratic blockages in Canberra. The special envoy would still have his work cut out for him to cross Southeast Asia. Foreign Ministries in the sub-region tend to be conservative and protective of protocol. Access to foreign ministers, let alone heads of government, can be hard to come by, even for Americans. Unless the Australian envoy already has gravity, their access may be capped below ministerial level – useful for political work but too weak for political buy-in. In most countries, it is not clear who the envoy’s counterpart would be or what added value he would bring, especially in security and defense cooperation.

The biggest question hovering over the envoy’s appointment is whether there are enough juicy fruits for the picking in Southeast Asia to justify the role. Labor criticized the previous government for not prioritizing Southeast Asia, despite its large population, market size and proximity to Australia. The previous government was also blamed for its tone when speaking to and about China.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has chosen Indonesia for his first bilateral visit after taking office, symbolically underscoring the wider importance of Southeast Asia to Australia’s new government. But if Canberra’s main strategic interest is to balance, as Marles suggests speech at the Singapore security summit, the choices on offer in Southeast Asia are not obvious, or certainly not at a level easily accessible to a Deputy Ministerial envoy.

One suggestion for the new government would be to extend the geographical scope of the envoy to the whole of the Indo-Pacific. If Southeast Asia would remain at the center of their mission, it would open up additional opportunities on more fertile ground, not only with the Quad partners, but also with countries like Bangladesh and South Korea, where a Australian plenipotentiary might be surprised by the welcome he expects them to receive.

The analogue would be more like the US Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs at the National Security Council, Kurt Campbell. The French have an ambassador in the Indo-Pacific and the EU a special envoy. Basic symmetry with partners’ positions would provide complementary opportunities for Australia’s regional envoy – to reinforce their message where appropriate, but still fundamentally representing an independent view grounded in Australia’s national interests and its place in the region.

Even then, access could prove patchy, but a larger stage would ensure Australia’s Indo-Pacific special envoy would always have an open door to knock on. It could also free up more time for the foreign minister to serve as Australia’s chief envoy to Southeast Asia, which could be a more effective signal of the subregion’s importance.

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