Australian Mission to ASEAN

Australia and ASEAN: Past, Present and Future

Australia and ASEAN:  Past, Present and Future

Mr Simon Merrifield

Ambassador to ASEAN

Foreign Service Institute, Manila 27 March 2015


Thank you for the invitation to be here.  It’s such pleasure to be back in Manila – my third visit to this vibrant city as Ambassador to ASEAN.  I am no stranger to the Philippines.  I landed here as a freshly-minted Third Secretary at the Australian Embassy 25 years ago and stayed for three years.  It was and remains an intensely interesting and engaging place, and I spent much of my free time back then travelling widely, from Laoag to Zamboanga and many, many places in between.  Looking around me today, so much has changed.  A different President Aquino is in charge now.  But one thing is constant:  it’s always more fun in the Philippines!

This time last year I accompanied my Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, to an excellent event at the Manila Peninsula in Makati where she joined with Secretary del Rosario in launching the 40th Anniversary of Australia’s dialogue partnership with ASEAN.  That occasion was made special not just by perfect Filipino hospitality, but by the generous and sincere words of friendship from the Foreign Secretary.  That reflected the close bonds that Australia and the Philippines share bilaterally, and through that, the excellent interface Australia has had with ASEAN through having the Philippines as our Country Coordinator for the past three years. 

With such an auspicious start to our 40th anniversary year in 2014, we were delighted to wrap it up with our elevation to strategic partnership, announced at the ASEAN-Australia  Commemorative Summit in Nay Pyi Taw last November.  For Australia, that acknowledged the road we’ve travelled together, but more than that, it signalled a shared future, one where we would continue to collaborate on promoting the security and prosperity of this corner of the world.   ASEAN has been a great success story in international affairs and essential to achieving and preserving a stable and prosperous region.  As our strategic environment becomes more complex, ASEAN’s job becomes both harder, and more important.  As a strategic partner, Australia will continue its deep commitment to ASEAN and work at all levels to help manage those strategic dynamics.    

Today, I hope to convey three broad things:  some perspectives on how Australia sees ASEAN, some comments on what ASEAN and Australia do together, and some thoughts on where this path might lead next.   

First, ASEAN:  No-one needs to tell the Philippines, as a founding member and major player, just how important these times are as Member States enter the final stretch in preparing for the ASEAN Community in 2015.  An extraordinary amount has been achieved on these ambitions to date and some very difficult challenges remain.  But whatever metrics might account for progress achieved and gaps remaining, the fact is that ASEAN is one of the most successful regional groupings on the planet and has an incredibly bright future. 

When ASEAN formed in 1967, or even when Australia became its first dialogue partner in 1974, few would have envisaged things turning out quite so well.  That’s not to say people weren’t optimistic about ASEAN back then, because they were.  It’s just that the uncertainty of those times tempered expectations.  But through vision, leadership and a deeply ingrained habit of consultation, ASEAN has come to be the defining feature Southeast Asia’s stability and prosperity – stability and prosperity for 10 countries and 625 million people.  As profoundly important as that is for Southeast Asia, it’s hardly less important for ASEAN’s friends and neighbours who share this wider region.  For Australia, ASEAN’s success is a major strategic asset. 

I want to focus my comments on why ASEAN matters to Australia – now, in the 21st Century.  But to give that some context I do want look back just a bit, for while ASEAN has a lot of new partners and a good number more courting it, Australia is an old friend – not just through our 40 years of dialogue partnership, but though a close network of relationships with Southeast Asian countries individually from the beginning of Southeast Asia’s post-colonial era – for the past 70 years. 

One measure of that is that we have had a resident embassy in every current ASEAN country since the earliest years of their respective independence.  Indeed, here in Manila, a gentleman by the name of Herbert Petersen opened our diplomatic mission in May 1946 – just six weeks before the Philippines assumed full sovereignty.  We moved early to establish diplomatic networks across Southeast Asia because there was a whole new international political landscape emerging in our region.  Those embassies were there for a reason, because our interests were engaged and there were things to be done.  Then as now, we worked hard to play a useful role and make a difference.  In some countries

  • We have had the honour of helping facilitate the path to formal independence, such as our UN Good Offices role in Indonesia in the 1940s.
  • In others, we have played an active diplomatic role at critical points in history, such as our campaign to garner international support for the formation of Malaysia in 1963.
  • In others again, we have helped facilitate the cessation of years of conflict, such as through our key role in Cambodia’s Paris Peace Accords, along with our subsequent substantial commitment to UNTAC. 
  • And we’ve enabled the education of many thousands of Southeast Asian scholars in our universities, from the 1950s onwards, under the original Colombo Plan and follow-on schemes.   

Just as Australia’s appreciation of ASEAN is not a recent revelation, so too our view that its future significance is not just fashion.  Far from it, for our economic partnership is on a trajectory like never before. 

  • Back in 1974, no-one would have foreseen that by 2014, ASEAN would be Australia’s second-largest trading partner.  But that’s just what it is:  a larger trading partner for us than Japan, than the EU, than the US. 
  • With a $99 billion two-way trade relationship, ASEAN is second only to China.  And this figure is more than double what it was a decade ago.  The recent growth has been amazing. 

Trade grows for many reasons, but Australia and ASEAN have worked hard together to create the right conditions for growing our trade.  Where once we all hid behind tariff walls, we were reborn as free traders and between us have negotiated a very high standard free trade agreement known as AANZFTA – the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement. 

  • This ground-breaking agreement was something we both wanted – an idea to advance our mutual interests and better link ourselves economically. 
  • At the time, though, ASEAN had concerns about capacity constraints:  how could Member States negotiate in their own best interests, and be confident they were doing so? 

It was around that concern – and our collective ambition to allay it – that Australia, New Zealand and ASEAN set up a facility (known as AECSP – full name: AANZFTA Economic Cooperation Support Program) in the ASEAN Secretariat aimed at building up the technical capacities of Member States to deal with these issues. 

  • it works to build capacity among ASEAN Member States – especially the less developed ones – to understand and deal with those essential but complex and technical concepts and procedures crucial to trade:  rules of origin, certification, customs, intellectual property and competition policy. 

Through sharing knowledge and collaborating on something as important and valuable as AANZFTA, Australian and ASEAN trade officials have built up remarkable mutual understanding and respect, and the ambition to do more.  And that ambition is reflected in the bold ASEAN initiative of RCEP.  The objective of RCEP is to achieve a modern, high-quality agreement among 16 diverse countries to cover trade in goods, trade in services, investment, economic and technical cooperation, intellectual property, competition, dispute settlement and so on.  This is no small undertaking – upon conclusion it would involve half the world’s population and 30 percent of GDP.  Australia’s remains deeply committed to RCEP.  There are some tough challenges to work through  - next week in Jakarta, senior RCEP negotiators will focus in on these challenges with a view to seeing whether negotiations can be completed by the end of this year.    

Quite apart from our collaboration on FTAs, Australia has been working with the ASEAN Secretariat on helping ASEAN Member States on economic issues, in more recent years described as ‘helping with the move towards the AEC.’  In its current form, this facility is known as the ASEAN-Australia Development Cooperation Program II, but AADCPII is in fact the grandchild of the ASEAN-Australia Economic Cooperation Program, which began in the Secretariat in 1974 and has now reached its third generation.   

These programs have a special character in that they are not about what Australia thinks ASEAN needs, but about what ASEAN itself identifies as priorities.  So AADCPII programs focus on agreed high-priority AEC Blueprint activities and current priority areas are services, investment, agriculture, ASEAN Connectivity and financial integration.  .     

Central to our support for the AEC is working to help narrow ASEAN’s development gap.  That is at the heart of our $1 billion plus annual set of country-level development programs, here in the Philippines and with our other ASEAN development partners, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.  As you may know, Australia is a leading development partner here, working together on promoting prosperity, increasing economic growth, partnering on education reforms, promoting disaster preparedness, improving conditions for peace and security and building institutions for inclusive development.

While the breadth and depth of our trade and economic cooperation make for the dominant story in the ASEAN-Australia partnership, it’s far from the only story.  For example, we take a close interest in ASEAN’s work on disaster management, building on our strong bilateral cooperation in this area, borne out of responses to major catastrophes such as the 2004 tsunami, the 2008 cyclone in Myanmar, and the devastation of Typhoon Yolanda in 2013.   

As we know only too well, a number of Southeast Asian countries, not least the Philippines, are disaster-prone.  Disaster strikes too often -  in my three years I was involved in the response to the 1990 Baguio earthquake, Typhoon Ruping, also in 1990, and the eruption of Mt Pinatubo in 1991. 

  • In such circumstances, friends always rally to assist, but communication and coordination of responses pose a very particular challenge. 
  • That’s why Australia has been a proud friend and key financial supporter of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management, or the AHA Centre.  In its short life since late 2011, the AHA Centre has supported ASEAN responses to disasters seven times, each time reflecting its growing capacity and experience. 
  • Having recently completed its comprehensive lessons-learned exercise on ASEAN’s response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, Australia is confident that the AHA Centre will continue to invest in building preparedness and increasing the capacity of the region to respond to disasters. 

Southeast Asia’s transformation since 1967 is astonishing.  In framing its success, how can ASEAN sell receding conflict and instability as an achievement?  It’s hard.  But it’s reasonable to assert that ASEAN habits of consultation have been invaluable in preserving a peaceful neighbourhood.  Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine what Southeast Asia would look like today had ASEAN never come about.  Or as my friend and colleague Ambassador Elizabeth Buensuceso put it to me the day after I took up my role in Jakarta “If you think working with ASEAN is a challenge, try working without it!”

ASEAN has a key role in helping all of us successfully manage the changing strategic dynamics in the region, including the relationships between and among the major players. ASEAN centrality, which Australia supports wholeheartedly, serves a strategic purpose in helping to balance these dynamics. ASEAN and ASEAN-led fora can make the most of this centrality with active management of some of the region’s more sensitive issues. This includes, of course, the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, which affects claimants and non-claimants alike by virtue of its role as a major thoroughfare for international trade – including ours, with around 60 per cent of Australian exports and 40 per cent of our imports passing through those waters. 

That’s why it’s important for members of the broader region to invest in building up ASEAN-led mechanisms for dealing with security and strategic issues.  That’s why Australia has consistently attached great store to those processes that have brought together ASEAN members with the wider region.  That’s why we chose to be a founding member of the ASEAN Regional Forum and have been an active participant for the 20 years of its existence. 

The ARF’s work on functional cooperation across so many areas has been critical to fostering the habits of cooperation.  From disaster management and maritime security to newer issues such as cyber, the ARF has delivered practical results to the regional security agenda. 

Australia also sees opportunity for the region with the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+).  With disputed territories in our region giving rise to the risk of miscalculation, the ADMM+’s fostering of military-to-military cooperation at the operational level is of immense value – its efforts on building relationships and familiarity between services has a vital role to play in our regional security, complementing both the ARF and the EAS.

From Australia’s perspective, the East Asia Summit is the premier regional forum:  it is a leaders-led process, it includes all ASEAN members together with all the key players in the region, with the United States, China and India at the one table, and it has the mandate to address the most compelling issues of our times.  With ASEAN at its centre, the East Asia Summit represents a potential anchor for our region’s peace and a stabiliser for our region in challenging times. 

Australia’s aspiration for the EAS is for it to build confidence and nurture a culture of dialogue and collaboration on security issues in this part of the world. 

  • We also want the EAS to ensure that regional financial and economic integration keeps moving forward, binding our economies together and deepening our mutual interest in thwarting future financial crises.   
  • And we also see the EAS as a vehicle to address the transnational issues of our times, including resource and food security, non-proliferation and terrorism, disaster management and pandemic response. 
  • In all of this our objective should be to nurture habits of consultation across the region. Consultation, as ASEAN has taught us, can make the search for solutions easier and diminish the risks of miscommunication.

Since the ASEAN Charter, ASEAN has been looking increasingly outwards to the world.  So as ASEAN contemplates its next big step – framing its vision beyond 2015 – its friends stand by in support, confident that the great ASEAN ambition of fostering stability and promoting prosperity will continue to project out onto a broader canvas, aspiring to further integration, liberalisation and openness. 

A key feature of our future relationship with ASEAN will be the culture of two-way partnership.  This notion – that Australia has much to learn from our friends in the region – underpins the thinking behind the New Colombo Plan, our scheme to provide opportunities to young Australians to live, study and work in Asia.  Foreign Minister Bishop announced in Nay Pyi Taw that, following its successful pilot in 2014, the New Colombo Plan would be rolled out to all ten ASEAN Member States.  In the Philippines, starting now, expect to see more bright young Australians on your streets, here not just to absorb the quintessential Asian holiday experience but to learn, understand and appreciate your way of life and your way of seeing things. 

Such people-to-people links lie at the heart of any successful partnership.  I speak from personal experience;  I was an exchange student in Indonesia in the mid-1980s, which had a huge influence on me and the path I chose.  Because we know the value of these things, the Government has decided that, in order to enhance further people-to-people engagement with ASEAN on a regional scale, it will establish an Australian-ASEAN Council to initiate and support activities designed to enhance awareness, links and understanding between people and institutions in Australia and ASEAN.

So there are some new things for the ASEAN-Australia relationship, which sit proudly among many of our mature, longstanding commitments to our Southeast Asian friends.  Make no mistake, our vision for the future of our engagement is about building on the strengths of the past, not replacing them.  And it’s about reflecting on the success of the cooperation we’ve had in areas of strength – like the economic pillar – and replicating that in areas where there has been less engagement. 

We remain committed to helping ASEAN narrow the development gap, by sustaining our $1 billion plus aid investment among the less well-off ASEAN members.    

We remain committed to supporting ASEAN connectivity, reflected in such concrete terms by that first bridge over the Mekong 20 years ago and many, many projects since. 

And we remain committed to supporting the ASEAN Community 2015 vision, through our programs designed to support Member States identify and overcome the challenges to achieving economic integration.

So, looking ahead, our friends across ASEAN can continue to count on Australia as an old friend and neighbour, committed to a stable and prosperous Southeast Asia as a key element of our own stability and prosperity.  But we are an old friend open to new ways, and, as we move forward, we seek to do so in partnership, jointly investing in a prosperous future to the benefit of us all.