Australian Mission to ASEAN

ASEAN-Australia Youth Summit

ASEAN-Australia Youth Summit 2013

Opening Remarks by Ambassador-designate to ASEAN

Mr Simon Merrifield

North Melbourne Town Hall, 24 August 2013


In 1974, the year that Australia became ASEAN's first dialogue partner, the Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, said Australia had a “genuine and continuing interest in South East Asia” and there could be “no turning back from this commitment”. Mr Whitlam said that Australia was “a steadfast…partner – a true participant – in the destiny of South East Asia” and that “Of all (regional arrangements and associations) in this region, ASEAN is unquestionably the most important, the most relevant, the most natural”.

Whitlam’s words are as accurate now as they were then. While these days there is much to be said about the economic and strategic rise of the Asia Pacific and the sheer scale of the powerhouse economies, South-East Asia is our immediate neighbourhood and its future is our future. 

Australia has a profound, long-standing and enduring interest in ASEAN, and ASEAN has never been more important than it is today.  Our region's prosperity and security owe much to ASEAN's achievements.  That is so for the past and will remain so for the future.  With a dynamic strategic order, a shift in economic weight to the Asian region and ever-growing demand for resources among emerging economies, South-East Asia is an arena where the interests of world powers are at play. 

We will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the ASEAN-Australia relationship next April. Since becoming ASEAN’s first dialogue partner, Australia has invested considerable effort in building this partnership.

The focus of the relationship in the early years was on economic and development cooperation.  But it has been a long time since Australia’s cooperation with ASEAN was solely or even principally focused on development cooperation, important as that remains.  Our cooperation has evolved to reflect our policy priorities, the growing sophistication of our economies and the convergence of our interests.

In the 1980s, the relationship shifted to a phase of expanding trade and investment.  Since then, trade has been a crucial driver in bringing Australia and ASEAN together. Today, ASEAN is one of our most significant trading partnerships, accounting for 14.4 per cent of Australia trade in 2010-11 [China 19.7 per cent, Japan 11.8 per cent].  And there are strong prospects for further growth in our trade and investment relationship, particularly through the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, AANZFTA, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), currently under negotiation by officials from ASEAN nations and those countries with whom ASEAN has free trade agreements, Australia among them. 

Deep and growing people-to-people links are also one of the great strengths of our partnership.  The 2006 Australian census recorded nearly half a million people from the ASEAN region living in Australia (out of a population of around 22 million).

ASEAN’s role in the region

Since its establishment in 1967, ASEAN has fostered habits of cooperation, bringing together diverse and divergent countries and building regional trust, peace and development.  It is an outstanding example of the notion of interdependence – the collective weight of ASEAN’s now ten members has allowed its influence to be felt across the region and beyond, and has cemented its members’ growing interdependence in evolving regional architecture, contributing to the political and economic development and security of our region.

As a measure of its success, ASEAN has become the hub of regional multilateral forums like the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum.  Australia works actively with ASEAN to build a regional architecture with the right mandate and players to safeguard the security and prosperity of the broader Asia Pacific region

At the same time, ASEAN member countries are working to integrate even more closely through an agenda for an 'ASEAN Community' by 2015, that will embrace economic and trade, political and cultural interests.  ASEAN’s community increasingly looks out as well as in.

As you are mostly students, or graduates, let me say a little about ASEAN-Australia educational cooperation, which illustrates well the strong foundation of our relations and shared future.

Education is a key shared regional interest which has underpinned our cooperation in the past and present, and for which there is great scope for further development,

Education, especially international education, will play a great role in ASEAN Community building by helping to create a sense of regional identity, just as this very summit today demonstrates.

Educational cooperation between Australia and the ASEAN region is deep and growing - Southeast Asian student enrolments now make up about one fifth of our international student intake (also in 2011, ASEAN countries received 1628 Australia Awards (1440 Development, 188 Endeavour)).

This is one of Australia’s great strengths in the region – its ability to bring together youth from across the region to learn, to cooperate, and to develop together as one region.

These links between the Australian people and our neighbours in ASEAN are very significant. Thousands of students from Southeast Asia studied and trained in Australia under the Colombo Plan, with many now occupying senior positions in government and other sectors in the region.

The Asian Century provides opportunities for even greater links. The collaboration between our countries will help broaden the opportunities for students to travel across the region to teach and learn from each other and further develop relationships.

You are the next generation of regional leaders, and the links that you make here, with both your ASEAN and Australian counterparts, will put you in good stead to lead a cooperative, functional and innovative ASEAN into the future.  Here you will develop the skills, the networks and the knowledge to take up the opportunities to work successfully in an increasingly global environment.

I congratulate you on the second annual event in your endeavour and I wish you and the Summit the best success in forging the educational, cultural and people-to-people links that will drive regional cooperation into the future.