Simon Merrifield, Australian Ambassador to ASEAN
Residence of the Australian High Commissioner to Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur, 3 June 2014
It’s great to be a part of this fourth Australia-ASEAN Emerging Leaders’ Program. It’s an ideal way for you to tune in to the high-level discussion on regional issues, while building networks that will enrich your own lives while also strengthening further the linkages between ASEAN and Australia.
ASEAN has never been more important to Australia than it is today, since the partnership commenced at a modest meeting of officials in Canberra in April 1974. ASEAN back then was just seven years old and comprised the original five members. Australia, of course, was also a very different place that the one we know today.
For Australia, ASEAN sits at the heart of our national interests: it is central to how we, as a nation, maximise our prosperity and wellbeing while minimising the risks to our security in a dynamic and increasingly turbulent region. ASEAN is at the very centre of a region that defines both our strategic and security interests and our economic and trade ones. As a trading nation, we rely deeply on stable and prosperous markets in Asia, as well as the freedom of navigation and a rules-based international order to access them. And as a trading partner in its own right, ASEAN tallied as a single economy is second only to China in our two-way trade rankings.
ASEAN has crafted a style of international engagement that prioritises consultation and consensus. In a region so strikingly diverse, such an approach is an astute investment. That this approach now reaches beyond ASEAN into its network of neighbours and dialogue partners places ASEAN at the heart of the most dynamic region of the world. This is the basis of ASEAN’s so-called centrality, a well-earned prerogative.
As our world changes, with power and wealth shifting from West to East and with global supply chains redefining trade routes, there are natural anxieties about how the future will play out, how power will be used and what economic dominance will mean in an evolved global order. Will new powers respect, observe or even understand, the international norms and values that shape our interaction today? Or will they be guided by some other conception? All that we know at this point is that we should take nothing for granted.
In this context, habits of consultation become critical. The opportunity for all key stakeholders to sit around the table and engage on the big issues is crucial, even if consensus is elusive. ASEAN’s stewardship of these critical regional mechanisms – the EAS and ADMM+ -- is a major contribution to the global agenda and we need to offer it our every support.
While we are enthusiastic about ASEAN-led regional architecture, AMSs understandably have higher-ranked priorities for the immediate future, in terms of delivering on commitments for the ASEAN Community 2015.
These plans are critically important, for AMS, for ASEAN institutionally, and for ASEAN’s partners. We have a particular connection to the ASEAN Economic Community Pillar, partly because of the strength of our economic relations and partly because of our familiarity with ASEAN’s trade policy terrain as a result of negotiating three bilateral FTAs with AMS together with the very good quality AANZFTA. Because of this, we have a set of mature technical cooperation programs with the ASEAN Secretariat, aimed at assisting with AMS implementation of commitments in relation to economic integration, as well as supporting implementation of FTA commitments.
This shared experience and engagement of course assists us greatly in collaborating on the phenomenally complex and ambitious Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the mega-FTA that will join up AMS with their six FTA partners to cover half the world's population and a third of global GDP.
Our ASEAN friends tell us that Australia’s technical support programs represent best practice for the ASEAN side because they are genuinely partnership based. In other words the programs respond to actual needs as articulated by ASEAN and are constructed in close partnership with them. We are proud of that because it means we have a good sense of what ASEAN is and what it wants. That makes us, I believe, the sort of partner ASEAN wants to have.
We will stand ready to support ASEAN into the future if it continues to want our help, but we will not let that define our relationship. Far from it. As ASEAN realises its Community aspirations in the period ahead, Australia envisages even deeper and broader engagement across the full spectrum of our shared interests: trade and economic integration, strategic and defence engagement, business and investment, food and energy security, education, tourism, infrastructure and people to people connectivity.
Our vision for the future is a region where we are economically strong, where it is easier for us to work together and get things done, and where we can live in peace and stability shaped by a rules-based order.
A signature pathway to this engagement is the new reverse Colombo plan, through which talented young Australians will take as a rite of passage the opportunity to learn from our neighbours about their way of doing things, through spending time studying in Asian institutions and gaining professional experience on the ground. Those bright young Australians, more deeply attuned to the nuances of their region, will, like the group here tonight, take forward the next generation of regional engagement to a new height.