Australian Mission to ASEAN

Australia and ASEAN: 21st Century Partners

Australia and ASEAN:  21st Century Partners

Opening remarks for the conference

“Success & Challenges:

40 years of ASEAN-Australia Dialogue Partnership”


Mr Simon Merrifield

Australian Ambassador to ASEAN

State Library of Victoria, 3 December 2014


Thank you to Deakin University and Asialink for the invitation to be here today.  It’s always a pleasure doing things with Asialink and I look forward to working in this role with Deakin University as well. 

There is much to be said – and I think today much will be said – about our long and fruitful engagement with ASEAN over the past 40 years: with ASEAN as an institution, and of course, our engagement with Southeast Asian countries individually over a much longer period.  So while I shall touch on the past to provide some context about where we stand now, most of what I want to say today is about the present, with some thoughts about what we might look to in the future. 

In the blizzard of important foreign and trade policy developments that crossed our radar in the middle of last month, there was one story that didn’t quite get the attention it deserved.  That was the decision by ASEAN Leaders, in Nay Pyi Taw, to elevate ASEAN’s partnership with Australia to the strategic level.  The decision was confirmed by ASEAN Leaders and Prime Minister Abbott at the ASEAN-Australia 40th Anniversary Commemorative Summit on 12 November, hosted by Myanmar in between the ASEAN and EAS Summits. 

That was a fitting outcome for our 40th.  It acknowledged Australia’s close involvement with ASEAN for the past 40 years, but more than that, it signaled our future mutual interest in working closely together, to collaborate in shaping a stable, prosperous and joined up region underpinned by ever-expanding people to people linkages. 

These are very important times in ASEAN as the Member States enter their final year of preparations to form the ASEAN Community.  An extraordinary amount has been achieved on these ambitions to date, and of course many hard yards remain, but the key thing is that ASEAN is one of the most successful regional groupings in the world and has a very bright future. 

Since the ASEAN Charter came into force in 2008, ASEAN has been looking increasingly outwards to the world, recognising the opportunities that reside in open and inclusive regionalism.  And while the focus for ASEAN at the moment is to fulfil their ambitions for 2015, a lot of thinking is also taking place about how ASEAN should position itself in the post-2015 world.  That is very much a work in progress, but, from where I sit in Jakarta and moving around the other nine ASEAN capitals, all indications are 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. 

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. I don’t mean that there wasn’t optimism in those early years about ASEAN’s prospects, for there was – you only need to look at Gough Whitlam’s language at the time our dialogue partnership commenced. 

But what has been achieved I think exceeds those expectations.  For through vision, leadership and a deeply ingrained habit of consultation, ASEAN has not only contributed immensely to the stability and prosperity of Southeast Asia’s ten countries and 625 million people, but has also created, driven and shaped the regional frameworks of the broader Indo-Pacific region.  ASEAN today is not just a defining feature of Southeast Asia’s stability and prosperity;  it’s at the very centre of all the consequential mechanisms and processes in the East Asian region. 

Commentators sometimes marvel at Southeast Asia’s diversity  as a factor that makes ASEAN’s achievements all the more remarkable – three or four major religions, a dozen official languages, distinct cultural outlooks and very different styles of government – monarchist, communist, liberal democratic.  Of course that is remarkable, but I also embrace the view of Malaysian scholar Farish Noor, that Southeast Asia has long had an interconnectedness of its own, sitting astride trade routes, populated by seafarers and merchants, exposed to waves of outside influences, and endowed with open, adaptive and syncretic cultures that have fostered internal migration and intermarriage. 

I say this to make the point that the ASEAN Community ambition is not just some 21st century construct handed down by officials about trade rules, customs procedures and road and port infrastructure, but has centuries and centuries of rich historical context. 

For Australia, ASEAN’s security and prosperity is an essential part of our own security and prosperity.  That is why Australia takes very seriously those ASEAN-led mechanisms to advance the stability and economic interests of the broader East Asian region.  There are a number of them and I’ll touch on them in a moment, but foremost are the East Asia Summit, bringing together the leaders of ASEAN, the US, China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, New Zealand and ourselves, and RCEP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, that mechanism by which the ASEAN Community aims to join up in a trade deal with the Asian powerhouse economies and other key regional actors.

Just as our sustained early engagement with Southeast Asia helped make us a natural partner for ASEAN in 1974, so too has the past decade or so of our engagement confirmed our appreciation of its future significance.  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 $92 billion two-way trade relationship, ASEAN is second only to China - a figure more than double what it was a decade ago.  The recent growth has been amazing.  And where trade with China engages some 5,500 Australian exporters, ASEAN trade engages something like 19,000. 

Trade grows for many reasons, but it’s a fact that Australia and ASEAN have worked hard together to create the right conditions for growing our trade. Where once we hid behind tariff walls, we have since transformed ourselves into free traders and between us have negotiated a very high standard free trade agreement known as AANZFTA – the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand FTA.  This ground-breaking agreement was something we both wanted – it was an idea to advance our mutual interests and better link ourselves economically.  At the time, though, ASEAN had concerns about capacity constraints:  how could ASEAN 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 created a facility within the ASEAN Secretariat, separate from our longstanding economic cooperation program, aimed at building up the technical capacities of Member States to deal with these issues.  Known as the AANZFTA Economic Cooperation Support Progam, this facility delivers workshops, training modules, policy dialogues and other modes of capacity building on key trade-related concepts and procedures such as rules of origin, certification, customs, intellectual property and competition policy. 

Drawing on this shared experience, Australian and ASEAN have become effective partners in driving even more ambitious trade liberalisation, in pursuing RCEP.  The RCEP proposal was announced in the margins of the November 2012 ASEAN meetings in Phnom Penh, setting the objective of a modern, high-quality agreement covering trade in goods, trade in services, investment, intellectual property, competition and dispute settlement.  

Like Australia, ASEAN sees the value in RCEP as a means by which to broaden the benefits of integration.  That is why ASEAN is enthusiastic for negotiations to conclude by the end of 2015, in line with the advent of the ASEAN Economic Community.  With the sixth round of negotiations under way in New Delhi this week, we should get a clearer sense very soon whether this deadline is achievable.  For our part, the quality and completeness of any such agreement should be the key determinant of when it is concluded;  it would be a setback for our collective credibility should, in the interests of meeting a target, we were to finalise an agreement that was not up to the mark. 

Quite apart from our collaboration on FTAs, Australia has been working with the ASEAN Secretariat for four decades now on helping ASEAN Member States on economic integration 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 but the third generation of programs of this type, run with the Secretariat, since 1974. 

The AADCPII suite of programs focuses on agreed high-priority AEC Blueprint activities at the national level, and current priority areas are services, investment, agriculture, ASEAN Connectivity and financial integration, while next week we will be supporting ASEAN’s first consumer protection conference in Hanoi, under a broader project aimed at supporting research and dialogue on the consumer protection agenda.     

We also have some new and interesting projects starting soon or under way.  The ACCC has begun running an intensive capacity building program for ASEAN Member States on implementing competition law, which kicked off in Vientiane in September with its inaugural activity led by Professor Allan Fels.  This new program will run until the end of next year in its first phase, that is, up to the beginning of the ASEAN Economic Community, but with a view to building on it in the post-2015 environment.    

Another new endeavour is to build on an earlier program of support to the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia, or ERIA, which has the role of providing research, analysis and policy recommendations to ASEAN Ministers and the ASEAN Secretariat in the context of ASEAN’s economic community building.  Over the next two years, we will be delivering assistance towards better joining up ERIA’s research and analytical output with the policy agenda of ASEAN and its immediate partners. 

While the breadth and depth of our trade and economic cooperation make for the dominant story in the ASEAN-Australia partnership, it is far from the only story.  We have, for example, taken a close interest in ASEAN’s work on disaster management and preparedness, in particular the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER). 

Despite its many geographic assets and attributes, Southeast Asia is, sadly, one of the most disaster-prone regions of the world.  We have seen proof of that too many times, with massive human tragedies resulting from typhoons, volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and floods.  In such circumstances, friends and partners will always rally to assist, but communication and coordination of responses pose a very particular challenge. 

That is why Australia has been a proud friend and vital 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 six 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. 

In 1967, when ASEAN formed, Southeast Asia was a turbulent part of the world.  While from the outset it was conceived as an organisation for economic, social and cultural cooperation, it also had a clear objective to promote regional peace and stability.  Indeed, peace and stability were necessary preconditions to achieve results in these other fields. 

One of the challenges ASEAN faces in framing its success is how to sell the diminution of conflict and instability as an achievement.  While it would be impossible to prove that ASEAN was responsible for the last few decades of peace in Southeast Asia, it is reasonable to assert that the habits of consultation that feature in ASEAN’s approach have played a very significant role in preserving a peaceful neighbourhood. 

Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what Southeast Asia would look like today had ASEAN never come about.  Or as the Philippines Permanent Representative to ASEAN, my good friend Elizabeth Buensuceso, quipped when 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 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 – 60 per cent of Australian exports and almost 40 per cent of our imports pass through those waters. 

This is why it is important for members of the broader region to invest in building up ASEAN-led mechanisms for dealing with security and strategic issues.  This is why Australia has consistently attached great store to those processes that have brought together ASEAN members with stakeholders from the wider region, why we chose to be a founding member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, or the ARF.

The ARF’s work on functional cooperation across so many areas has been critical to fostering the habits of cooperation and consultation which build confidence over time. From disaster management to maritime security to newer issues such as cyber, the ARF has delivered a breadth of practical results to the regional security agenda.  We expect this to grow further as the ARF moves into its Preventative Diplomacy phase. 

Australia also sees strong opportunities for the region with the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+), established at Vietnam’s initiative in 2010.  Despite its inelegant acronym, one delightfully simple feature of the ADMM+ is that it shares the exact membership of the East Asia Summit, so has the ten ASEAN Defence Ministers joining up with counterparts from China, the US, Japan, Korea, India, Russia, Australia and New Zealand.  With contested territory within our region and  the ever-present risk of miscalculation, the ADMM+’s goal of fostering military-to-military cooperation and understanding at the operational level is of immense value for building confidence and reducing risk.  The ADMM+’s work at building relationships and familiarity between services has a vital role to play in our regional security architecture, complementing both the ARF and the EAS.

From Australia’s perspective, the EAS 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 interests lie in working with our ASEAN and other like-minded partners to ensure the EAS continues to develop in this role

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 – that broad arc extending from India in the West across Asia and the Pacific to the United States in the East. 

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 such as we have seen in the two preceding decades.   

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 may not lead always to resolving problems but, as ASEAN has taught us, it can make the search for solutions easier and diminish the risks of miscommunication and miscalculation. 

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, a scheme that provides assistance and opportunities to young Australians to live, study and work in Asia.  Julie Bishop announced in Nay Pyi Taw in August that, following its successful pilot in 2014, the New Colombo Plan would be rolled out to all ten ASEAN Member States.    

Such people-to-people links lie at the heart of any successful partnership.  I know because almost 30 years ago as an undergraduate at ANU I signed up for the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program, a watershed moment in my life and something that set me on a path that would lead me to my role today. 

Because we know the value of these things, the Government has considered the options for enhancing further people-to-people engagement with ASEAN on a regional scale, and has decided, from mid-next year, to establish an Australian-ASEAN Council to promote Australia-ASEAN relations by initiating and supporting 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. 

We remain committed to helping ASEAN narrow the development gap, by sustaining Australia’s $1 billion plus annual 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 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.