Scott Morrison and Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the 2018 ASEAN Summit in Singapore (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The government’s recent pivot — maybe better described as a lurch — to South-East Asia, while welcome, has some major problems.

Three weeks ago it made a flurry of announcements designed, it appears, to let taxpayers know it was paying attention to the rapidly mounting fallout from the self-inflicted trade war with China.

South-East Asia got the chocolates in a package tailored for the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.

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In too many cases Australia’s relationships with South-East Asian nations have been in holding patterns because of its singular focus on China that has seen it put all its eggs in one monopsonistic basket.

Singapore and Indonesia have long been the exceptions — Singapore being a “safer” developed country and Indonesia being the potential clear and present danger.

Readers may remember the government’s last regional pivot — to the Pacific — also long neglected due to Australia’s insane economic obsession with China.

The Pacific has turned out to be something of a damp squib as its headline issue of climate change has been studiously ignored — and even thrown back in the islanders’ faces — by the pro-fossil-fuels Morrison government.

The South-East Asian lurch faces its own headwinds, not least of which that Chinese as well as Japanese and South Korean money makes our effort look like embarrassing small change.

A fundamental problem identified by former diplomats and Asia-wise business people for rebranding relationships with South-East Asia is that the government insists on equating the region and ASEAN.

Its ability to even speak with a single voice corrupted by China’s client states Cambodia and Laos, ASEAN is next to useless — but one look at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s website tells you we’re all-in on the wrong horse.

“We have done just OK with bilateral relations, but we have not done well commercially,” one former ambassador who served in a number of countries across South-East Asia and elsewhere said. “Unless you have strong commercial relationships you cannot have a strong relationship with a country.”

The lack of any national vision and cohesion in Australia in terms of its regional (and international) trade focus has actually damaged Australia’s standing. Diplomats work hard to help Australia businesses gain valuable licences in key areas such as financial services and telecommunications only to see corporations pull out.

“You lose political capital to get these benefits and then you lose even more when you sell out,” the diplomat said. “All of the big four banks and Telstra are cases in point.”

Small business has done better in South-East Asia but the steady decline in ministerial visits outside the end-of-year summit season, and the noticeable lack of many big name companies, provides a rod for their backs.

The rub with the government’s focus on ASEAN at the expense of bilateral relationships is an often frightening lack of understanding of local cultures and languages outside the diplomatic corps — and even there it can be stunningly lacking, as mid-ranking and junior diplomats in South-East Asian posts too often exist in cosseted expat bubbles.

A red letter case in point is the recent appointment of former Liberal premier of Tasmania Will Hodgman as the next high commissioner to Singapore, a classic job for the boys that drew plenty of sighs and eyerolls from experienced diplomats and Australians doing business in Asia.

It’s exactly the sort of contradictory, often inchoate foreign policy that we have come to expect from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, and the cabal of Home Affairs, Defence and the deep-state security apparatus that increasingly holds sway in Canberra.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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