Australian Mission to ASEAN

Australia and ASEAN: Old Partners for a New Vision

Australia and ASEAN:  Old Partners for a New Vision


Mr Simon Merrifield

Ambassador of Australia to ASEAN

Speech to the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam

Ha Noi, 8 May 2015


Thank you for the invitation to be here.  This is my third visit to Vietnam as ASEAN Ambassador and sixth in total, going back to the mid-90s.  It’s always a pleasure to be back; especially so in the context of our deepening bilateral partnership, very much evident in Prime Minister Dung’s visit to Australia in March. 

Just as Australia and Vietnam have built a strong relationship bilaterally, so too have Australia and ASEAN crafted a rich and multifaceted partnership focused on our mutual interests.  This is what I want to discuss today:  why ASEAN matters to Australia, and what Australia is doing to support ASEAN as an institution, as a process of integration and as a framework for our region’s prosperity and stability.

ASEAN has been a great success story in international affairs, essential to achieving and preserving a stable and prosperous region.  Australia recognised ASEAN’s importance and potential early on.  That’s why we became ASEAN’s first dialogue partner in 1974, and why, when marking our 40th anniversary last year in Nay Pyi Taw last year, we celebrated the elevation of our partnership to the strategic level.  

For Australia, that elevation 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.  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.

Reflections on ASEAN

First, some comments on ASEAN:  As Member States enter the final stage of preparations for the ASEAN Community later this year, much focus is on the tasks remaining to meet the blueprint goals.  There are many challenges in that and I think no one expects a perfect result, but the reality is that an extraordinary amount has been achieved, that ASEAN is one of the most successful regional groupings in the world and has a very bright future. 

When ASEAN formed in 1967, few would have foreseen things turning out quite so well.  Such was the turbulence of those times.  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.  That’s important for Southeast Asia, but equally so for ASEAN’s neighbours in this wider region.  For Australia, ASEAN’s success is a major strategic asset. 

Before ASEAN….

Today’s talk is mostly about why ASEAN matters to Australia in the 21st Century.  But to help frame that I do want look back just a bit, for while ASEAN has a lot of new partners and suitors, Australia is an old friend – not just through our 40 years of dialogue partnership, but through relationships with Southeast Asian countries individually from the beginning of the post-colonial era – for the past 70 years. 

One measure of that is that we have had an embassy in every ASEAN country since their earliest years of independence.  We established diplomatic networks across Southeast Asia early on because of the profound change to our regional political landscape.  Those embassies were there 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 an end to conflict, such as through our key role in Cambodia’s Peace Accords, along with our subsequent role in UNTAC. 

So it may be a long association, but is it lost in time? Not at all.  Back in those early days, Australia’s interests were fundamentally focussed on the security agenda – the economic relationship was inconsequential.   Back in 1974, no-one would have foreseen that by 2015, 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 trade relationship, ASEAN is second only to China. And this figure is more than double what it was a decade ago.

Building trade – a new dynamism

We have worked hard at building that trade.  Together we negotiated a high quality free trade agreement known as AANZFTA – the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand FTA.  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 that Australia, New Zealand and ASEAN set up a facility (known as AECSP) in the ASEAN Secretariat to build up technical capacities of Member States, to deal with those essential but technical concepts and procedures crucial to trade. 

Through collaborating in this way, Australian and ASEAN trade officials have built up remarkable mutual understanding, and the ambition to do more. That ambition is reflected in the bold ASEAN initiative RCEP – one of the two mega-FTAs preoccupying Australian and Vietnamese trade officials as we speak.  Australia’s remains deeply committed to RCEP, and is focused on securing the best possible outcome as soon as practicable.

Supporting ASEAN economic integration

Quite apart from our collaboration on FTAs, Australia has been working with the ASEAN Secretariat on helping ASEAN Member States on economic integration issues, using a facility known as the ASEAN-Australia Development Cooperation Program II.  AADCPII’s programs respond to what ASEAN itself identifies as priorities, and so focus on agreed priority areas which are services, investment, agriculture, financial integration and connectivity.   

ASEAN Connectivity is an area of particular interest to us.  Our Thai friends often say that Australia was supporting ASEAN connectivity well before ASEAN thought of the term – pointing to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge across the Mekong that opened in 1994.  We are delighted that contribution is so well remembered, as is the case here in Vietnam, with this month marking the 15th anniversary of the opening of the My Thuan Bridge – the first major bridge across the Mekong River in Vietnam.  And we are continuing that bridging tradition in the Delta, investing $160 million in the Cao Lanh bridge.  As a vital part of the Central Mekong Delta Connectivity Project, that bridge will help spur economic growth through linking people and markets in Delta to the rest of Southeast Asia and beyond.

Australia’s also contributing to ASEAN connectivity in less obvious ways:

  • At the policy and strategy level we have worked with the sector body to support monitoring of ASEAN’s connectivity masterplan, to boost communications and outreach, and to assist with the formulation of a post-2015 connectivity agenda.
  • On institutional and people-to-people connectivity, we have been closely involved in work to enable the movement of skilled labour around ASEAN, while also partnering with the ADB to improve cross-border management, transit procedures and exchange of traffic rights.

Narrowing the development gap…

A key objective of the AEC is to narrow the development gap between the wealthier Member States and those less well-off.  That is the central purpose of Australia’s $1 billion plus annual set of country-level development programs, here in Vietnam and with our other ASEAN development partners, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines.  Southeast Asia is very much the central focus of our development agenda, where we have an abiding commitment to poverty reduction and economic growth through investments in infrastructure, trade facilitation, agriculture, governance, education and the empowerment of women. 

Disaster management – helping the AHA Centre

While trade and economic cooperation are the centrepiece of the ASEAN-Australia partnership, there is more to it.  For example, we take a close interest in disaster management, building on our strong bilateral cooperation, borne out of responses to the region’s major catastrophes. 

As we know only too well, Southeast Asia is disaster-prone.  Calamities strike too often.  When they do, friends always extend their help, but coordination of responses pose a challenge.  That’s why Australia remains a founding friend and key financial supporter of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance, or the AHA Centre.  Since late 2011, the AHA Centre has supported ASEAN responses to disasters seven times. 

Peace and security

Southeast Asia’s transformation since 1967 is astonishing.  In framing its success, how can ASEAN sell receding conflict and instability as an achievement?  How do we claim the absence of interstate tension as an ASEAN accomplishment? Scholars here today might have the answer, but as a practitioner of diplomacy, I am convinced that ASEAN habits of consultation have been crucial in preserving a peaceful neighbourhood.  Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine what Southeast Asia would look like today had ASEAN never come about.  The familiarity, the relationships, the linkages that have built up over time, among leaders, diplomats, economic officials, militaries, sector bodies, are exceptional, and a major asset for Southeast Asian regional stability. 

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 attaches 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, where functional activites across so many areas has fostered habits of cooperation.  From disaster management and maritime security to newer issues such as cyber, the ARF has delivered practical results. 

And we applaud Vietnam’s strategic vision during the 2010 chairmanship, to expand the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting to also include the ‘plus eight’ countries as the ‘ADMM+’. With disputed territories in our region giving rise to the risk of miscalculation, the ADMM+’s fostering of mil-mil 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 regional security, complementing both the ARF and the EAS.

The East Asia Summit

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, Japan 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 is a potential anchor for our region’s peace and a stabiliser in challenging times. This year’s 10th anniversary of the EAS is an important opportunity for members to reflect on its value and its evolution.  ASEAN, under the leadership of the Malaysian chair, is thinking deeply about that and about what would be required to strengthen it further.   We support that;  the times are asking more of ASEAN and its partners in the regional project, so making the EAS as strong as we can is in all of our interests.

For our part, Australia sees three key steps to shore up the EAS:  first, a more interactive leaders’ summit; second, a platform to enable EAS members to engage between summits; and third, strengthening the ASEAN Secretariat’s capacity to service EAS processes.  

As a leaders’ forum, it’s imperative that leaders value it and maintain the commitment to turning up each year. A more interactive format should help that – those three hours together need to really count in order to justify leaders travelling from far and wide.  In that vein, they should be sure that the discussions they have will be meaningful and about the most pressing issues of the day – those issues that demand attention at the highest political level.  That doesn’t mean that leaders should not concern themselves at all with the six EAS work streams focussed on functional cooperation; but not at the expense of pressing strategic matters.  For 2015, Australia sees maritime security and violent extremism as the two pressing issues for leaders. We’d see great merit in leaders honing in on these issues for this year’s Summit.

Looking ahead

Australia has great respect for ASEAN’s achievements and we recognise the strategic importance of ASEAN centrality in evolving regional arrangements. And we think it is to everyone’s benefit that ASEAN has become such an outward-looking organization.  So as ASEAN contemplates its next big step – framing its vision beyond 2015 – we stand by in support, confident that ASEAN’s commitment to fostering stability and promoting prosperity will move on to its next evolution.

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 last year that the New Colombo Plan would be rolled out to all ten ASEAN Member States.  In Vietnam, expect to see more bright young Australians on your streets, here not just to absorb a great holiday and travel experience but to learn, understand and appreciate your way of life and your way of seeing things.  This year alone, we’re expecting over 400 Australian students to come to Vietnam under both theses arrangements.

Such people-to-people links lie at the heart of any successful partnership.  To enhance further people-to-people engagement with ASEAN on a regional scale, Australia has decided to 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.  This will come into being in the second half of this year. 

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 is more that could be done. 

We remain committed to helping ASEAN narrow the development gap, by sustaining our aid investments 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 the ones in the delta today.

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, in closing, 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.