Australian Mission to ASEAN

Australia and ASEAN: Past, Present, Future

Australia and ASEAN:  Past, Present, Future

Mr Simon Merrifield

Australian Ambassador to ASEAN

Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs, Kuala Lumpur, 9 December 2014


Thank you for the invitation to be here.  It’s great to be back in Kuala Lumpur.  I’ve been a frequent visitor here for 33 years and had the pleasure of living here for almost five years until 2005.  Malaysia’s a second home for me and a special place for many Australians.  We share a real connection.    

Australia and ASEAN have been commemorating 40 years of dialogue partnership this year.  We’re proud of that.  Back when it all began, in 1974, Australia’s Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, said (and I paraphrase slightly) “Of all the regional arrangements, ASEAN is unquestionably the most important, the most relevant, the most natural.” Those words resonate today, because we see ASEAN as a great success story in international affairs and essential to achieving and preserving a stable and prosperous region.  What has been good for ASEAN has been good for Australia. 

So we were heartened by the decision in Nay Pyi Taw last month to elevate Australia-ASEAN relations to the strategic level.  For us, that acknowledged the road we’ve travelled together, but more than that, signalled a shared future, one where we would continue to collaborate on promoting the security and prosperity of this corner of the world. 

Today, I hope to cover three broad topics:  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 Malaysia, as a founding member and incoming ASEAN Chair, 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 be applied to 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 – Gough Whitlam’s words are a case in point.  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 oSoutheast 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.

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.  And here in Kuala Lumpur, our mission actually pre-dates independence, when the late Tom Critchley, friend and confidant of the late Tunku Abdul Rahman and the late Tun Razak, became Australia’s first Commissioner to Malaya in 1955, then High Commissioner to Malaya at independence two years hence. 

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. 
  • And built bridges, literally, across the Mekong – the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge which marked its 20th birthday this year, about which my Thai colleague Arthayudh Srisamoot says “Australia was doing ASEAN connectivity well before the term was coined.”   

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 $92 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 something in the ASEAN Secretariat aimed at building up the technical capacities of Member States to deal with these issues. 

  • Known as the AANZFTA Economic Cooperation Support Program, it works hard 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 ASEAN’s bold and exciting 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 mean undertaking – upon conclusion it would involve half the world’s population and 30 percent of GDP.  Australia’s remains deeply committed to RCEP, and we hope that the right sort of progress was achieved at last week’s 6th negotiating round in New Delhi, to bolster the prospect of an agreement being secured by the end of next year. 

Quite apart from our collaboration on FTAs - even before there were 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.  And this week, AADCPII 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 have some other new and interesting projects starting soon or under way.  The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has begun 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, an eminent Australian scholar who was Australia’s first competition commissioner.   

 Another new endeavour is support to the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia, or ERIA, which provides research and policy recommendations to ASEAN Ministers and the 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. 

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, with Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines and Indonesia.  

  • These large programs are enhanced by our regional programs, which support responses to challenges faced by three or more ASEAN Member States. 
  • Our latest regional initiative is a AUD 10 million commitment over three years to the Mekong Business Initiative, a new facility to provide technical expertise on policy reform to governments in the Mekong countries.  In line with our aid-for-trade and economic diplomacy agendas, the MBI will work to improve regulatory environments in those countries to help businesses take advantage of the AEC. 

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 devastating typhoon in the Philippines last year.   

As we know only too well, a number of Southeast Asian countries are disaster-prone – a blessing that Malaysia is not one of them.  For our friends in the Philippines, though, disaster strikes too often, as we’ve seen over the past few days. 

  • 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 the Philippines Permanent Representative to ASEAN 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, 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.  This is evident is so many ways:  the great sense of welcome that newly arrived Ambassadors to ASEAN sense when they take up their posts, the global view that recurs is ASEAN-led statements and epitomised by the Bali Principles, the determination to ensure that ASEAN’s own economic community takes advantage of economic integration on a broader scale, such as with RCEP.  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 Malaysia, from next year, 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 myself was an exchange student in Indonesia in the mid-1980s, a deeply formative time for 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. 

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.