Stephen Grenville warns that Australia should identify new avenues of interaction with ASEAN. With the first US-ASEAN summit being held in Sunnylands this week, it is possible Australia could miss out on the region’s progress. One option is to exploit Australia’s strengths in science and technology (S&T). Australia’s strong research base combined with ASEAN’s entrepreneurship could result in a multitude of mutually beneficial initiatives.

At a time when the ASEAN Economic Community promises to liberalise trade and increase global competitiveness throughout Southeast Asia, S&T collaboration would support Australia to encourage regional business partnerships, develop new products, leverage emerging technologies and seek solutions to shared issues like sustainability.

It could make the most of initiatives proposed as part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda. Coordination between the new CSIRO Innovation Fund and the ASEAN Science, Technology and Innovation Fund would encourage regional entrepreneurship through a competitive funding mechanism – perhaps like the European Union’s (EU) Future and Emerging Technologies programs, which aim to turn research into competitive advantage.

The Agenda’s plan for Australia to host the 2019 Asian Physics Olympiad is an excellent way to encourage an Australian student cohort that lacks a STEM focus, but there are many other opportunities to extend interaction through ASEAN’s various science camps. Likewise, Australia could foster cross-border ties among researchers through the ASEAN Talent Mobility Platform that was announced at last November’s ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Science and Technology. The open data mashup competition GovHack could be expanded beyond Australia and New Zealand to include ASEAN governments and citizens too. Such activities would also develop cultural and linguistic understandings that would benefit our abilities to engage with each other in the future.

There is clearly scope for a more comprehensive Australia-ASEAN relationship in S&T, and it has  already been identified as an important area for cooperation. The Australia-ASEAN Council, launched in September, has also prioritised innovation and technology, though science is not yet well represented in its funding program.

Granted, engagement is made more difficult by disparities in regional states’ resources, capabilities, and interests, not to mention the challenges facing ASEAN’s own S&T programs. Yet these are not unsurpassable obstacles. After all, the US established a Mission to ASEAN in 2010 with a strong S&T focus, and along with the EU, India, Russia, and ASEAN Plus Three nations, remains a dialogue partner for ASEAN S&T activities. Why not Australia too?

S&T is another opportunity for Australian engagement with ASEAN. Though it demands patience and a long view, it is a low risk-high reward area for cooperation.

Allison Sonneveld is a researcher with the Australian Army. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mars P.