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The Department of Political and Social Change (PSC) has received a doubled level of funding from the Australian Government for a wide-ranging research project on Southeast Asia. This supports the second phase of PSC’s collaboration with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the goal of which is to examine how domestic political concerns in Southeast Asian countries are impacting the stability of the rules-based order in the region, and what Australia can do to assist.
The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper called for Australia to support an ‘increasingly prosperous, outwardly-focused, stable and resilient Southeast Asia’. While this goal is grounded in sustaining a rules-based order at the regional level, it also points to the importance of encouraging domestic arrangements conducive to such an order. In seeking to counter illiberal trends in much of the region, Australia can put greater focus on nurturing more inclusive democratic structures with stronger potential to uphold human rights and the rule of law.
In mid-2018, DFAT and PSC, in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at ANU, commenced discussions about how PSC might support greater Australian engagement with these critical issues. As the home of Australia’s largest concentration of expertise on Southeast Asian politics, PSC was keen to find opportunities to contribute its expertise to this important foreign policy goal.
By December 2018 the ‘Supporting the Rules-Based Order in Southeast Asia’ project, or SEARBO, was underway with an initial grant of $1M to conduct activities that focused on electoral dynamics in Indonesia and the Philippines, democratic and judicial reform options in the ‘new Malaysia’, and a major conference in April 2019 on Entrenched Illiberalism in Mainland Southeast Asia.
In recent months PSC received an augmented sum of $1.1M from DFAT to undertake a second phase of activities running into 2021, with a culminating conference tentatively planned for May 2021. Through this combination of policy-oriented research and advocacy activities, SEARBO is helping to develop a fresh agenda for Australia to promote and support democratic institutions within stable and resilient Southeast Asian states.
These research and advocacy activities have been chosen and refined through a process of close consultation between SEARBO researchers and both DFAT in Canberra as well as Australian embassies and high commissions in the region. Working together, they have identified activities expected to have the greatest impact across five core themes: a) religion, ethnicity and inclusive democracy; b) democracy, authoritarianism and political economy; c) protecting rights and democracy; d) women’s substantive representation; and e) democratic institutions: national and subnational dimensions.
The body of work draws heavily on close collaboration with PSC’s wide network of academic partners across Southeast Asia, supplemented with extensive contacts in national government agencies, local governments, civil society groups, polling organisations and beyond. In addition, PSC works closely with scholars of Southeast Asia based elsewhere in Australia as well as in North America.
Professor Paul Hutchcroft is the Chief Investigator for the overall SEARBO project, with head investigators across the five core themes, including Prof Edward Aspinall, Assoc Prof Greg Fealy, Dr Rebecca Gidley, Assoc Prof Paul Kenny, Assoc Prof Marcus Mietzner, and Dr Sally White.
Initial outputs of the project (including policy briefs and podcasts) can be found on the PSC-hosted New Mandala website, the leading forum for academic and policy outreach on Southeast Asia. The annual report on the findings of first phase of project was released in May 2020 and can be read here.
“Nowhere in the world, outside of the region itself, is there an academic unit able to match the depth and breadth of PSC’s expertise on the domestic politics of Southeast Asia”, Hutchcroft explains. “In a global environment of strong illiberal headwinds, this project supports core goals of Australian foreign policy by working with Southeast Asian partners to nurture more inclusive and resilient democratic structures”.