Australia’s Foreign Economic Policy and ASEAN

Australia's Foreign Economic Policy and ASEAN

Author(s):  Jiro Okamoto

ISBN:           9789812309747

Publisher: ISEAS Publishing

Year:           2010

Price:           £44.60

Reviewed by Andrea Passeri, Ph.D. Candidate in International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, University of Cagliari, Italy.

How can we assess the great deal of changes that Australia’s foreign economic policy experienced over the last four decades? Which role did the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) play within such a noticeable evolution? These relevant questions are at the very core of Okamoto’s work Australia’s Foreign Economic Policy and ASEAN, that explores both the systemic and domestic factors behind Canberra’s wavering ties with its neighboring countries, arguing that economic integration with Southeast Asia represented a major driver in reorienting Australia’s overall foreign economic policy at key historical junctures. By doing so, Okamoto evaluates historical and more recent Australian contributions to regional cooperation, that reflected fundamental shifts in domestic politics and in the diplomatic environment – as in the cases of the establishment of the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and, later, of the East Asia Summit – while tracing the sources of Australia’s preferential reliance on bilateral tools such as FTAs. The research, structured around eight chapters, is based on primary and secondary sources and appears well–informed, thanks also to several interviews conducted by the author with Australian senior government officials and peer groups’ representatives.

The second chapter provides a useful theoretic framework to understand the peculiar mix of domestic and external constraints which determines foreign economic policy options for middle powers as Australia. The main argument, here, is that neither systemic–level approaches, nor society–centered analysis, are able if taken singularly to grasp the real essence of these processes, which instead require a modus operandi focused on state–society coalitions, their shared beliefs and worldviews, as well as on the ways such coalitions rise and fall. Against this backdrop, changes in socio–economic conditions within the country, often inspired by significant shocks in the international environment, ignite a replacement of the predominant coalition by another, revealing a profound interplay between endogenous and exogenous drivers of policy change.

The following two chapters are dedicated to the historical setting in which Australia’s competing coalitions emerged, namely the traditional ‘protectionists’, the ‘trade–liberalizers’ and the so–called ‘bilateralists’. Simultaneously, Okamoto highlights the evolution of Canberra’s stance towards ASEAN since the establishment of the association in 1967, emphasizing the elements of discontinuity introduced in the 1970s by the Whitlam government’s ASEAN policy, pointed at playing a more active role within the Cold War setting through regional enmeshment. Again, however, a peculiar mix of domestic dynamics and external shocks (the most prominent being represented by the first oil crisis) led in the following years to the re–emergence of protectionist discourses, and the short ‘honeymoon’ with Southeast Asia was replaced by recurrent frictions and commercial disputes, in particular regarding a freer access for ASEAN’s competitive labour–intensive products to the Australian market.

Then, the analysis turns to the ascent and subsequent decline of trade–liberalizers, who gained momentum when the Hawke government came into office in 1983. A burgeoning economic interdependence in the Asia–Pacific gradually modified the landscape of Canberra’s major trading partners, with new stakeholders as Japan on the forefront, while, at home, those dissatisfied with Australia’s economic performances and its protectionist policies demanded stronger integration with neighboring countries and structural economic reforms, in order to meet the challenge of globalization. Significantly, Okamoto emphasizes the convergence of interests arisen in this phase between Australian trade–liberalizers and several ASEAN’s leaders, eager to offer their contribution to the enhancement of Asian regionalism as a tool to fuel economic growth.

Chapter six – which is absolutely worth reading for those who wish to better understand the genesis of ASEAN regional cooperation and its unique modus operandi (the so–called ‘ASEAN Way’) – explores the new opportunities and constraints emerging in the post–Cold War setting, as reflected in the decision to include the four Indochinese states among the ranks of the Association during the 1990s, thus embarking in the negotiating process to create an ASEAN Free–Trade Area (AFTA). Even more importantly, the author illustrates how mutual efforts between Southeast Asian élites and Australian trade–liberalizers culminated in the establishment of the ASEAN–CER Dialogue, connecting the Southeast Asian Free–Trade Area with the Australia–New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Trade Agreement (ANZCERTA).

The shortcomings of                the ASEAN–CER Dialogue in delivering  rapid and concrete results, however, paved the way for another shift within Australian advocacy groups, with multilateral and regional approaches losing consensus in favor of the aforementioned ‘bilateralists’, who gradually consolidated their positions in the Howard government.          Okamoto closely examines not only the sources of such limits, but also the key characteristics and results of the rebalancing towards bilateral approaches, exploring two relevant case–studies: the Australia–Singapore FTA, inaugurated in 2001 as a benchmark for future negotiations, and the Free–Trade Area established with the United States in 2004. Then, the author turns his attention to the core of the bilateralists’ strategy vis-à-vis ASEAN, clarifying that such a pragmatic stance – finalized to ‘divide and conquer’ individual ASEAN members through competitive liberalization – nonetheless allowed for an improvement in Canberra’s multilateral ties with the region, as reflected by Australia’s adhesion to the East Asia Summit in 2005.

Finally, the concluding chapter brings the author’s insights together, offering several implications for future developments. It reiterates the importance of prominent explanatory factors for interpreting both the trade–liberalizers’ ascent in the 1980s and their subsequent replacement by the bilateralists at the turn of the century. Among them, the analysis stresses the role of a gradual re-orientation in the perception of Canberra’s national interests in the region away from security imperatives and towards a stronger emphasis on economic issues, which helps to explain the significant decline in protectionist approaches, and the emergence of ASEAN and East Asian regionalism, which profoundly influenced the Australian stance.

In short, Okamoto’s work represents a precious reading for academics, students and scholars who seek a broad and multidimensional exploration of the evolving foreign economic policy pursued by Australia over the last four decades. It combines a solid theoretic framework with timely historic and empirical analysis, grasping the specific interplay of international and domestic constraints that brought to the rise and fall of different state–society coalitions with competing worldviews.

Suggested citation:  

Andrea Passeri (2014). Review of Australia’s Foreign Economic Policy and ASEAN, by Jiro Okamoto, East Asian Integration Studies Vol.7, no.5, Internet file: