Australian Mission to ASEAN

HOM address to the Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace on Australia’s role in ASEAN

HOM Address to the Cambodia Institute for Cooperation and Peace on Australia’s role in ASEAN
12 May 2017



Your Excellency Ambassador Pou Sothirak, thank you very much for that introduction and for the invitation to be here today to speak about Australia’s relations with ASEAN. 

I’m delighted to be in Phnom Penh, the first time in my official capacity as Australia’s Ambassador to ASEAN.  I’ve just spent the last day speaking with thought leaders from government, business and other sectors about ASEAN at the World Economic Forum.  ASEAN deserves this level of attention as it increases in strategic and economic heft and global influence.


Overview - Australia’s relations with ASEAN 

Australia has long recognised ASEAN’s importance to regional peace, stability and prosperity.  We are proud to recall that in 1974, Australia became the first external country to develop a formal multilateral relationship with ASEAN.

That year, Australia’s Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, described ASEAN as “unquestionably the most important, the most relevant, the most natural of the regional organisations”.

That truism is as relevant today, as it was back then.

Over the years we’ve deepened our engagement at the government to government level through annual Ministerial and senior official level dialogue covering the full gamut of ASEAN’s political, security, economic and socio-cultural agenda.  We’ve upgraded our relations as one of ASEAN’s top tier of partners to a Strategic Partnership and our leaders have commenced biennial Summits.

Our economic links with the ASEAN region are increasingly significant and strengthened through the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand FTA and our extensive people-to-people ties underpin the warmth of our relations.

This morning, I will address these political, economic and people-to-people links and highlight for you our forward agenda for elevating ties to this region, through ASEAN.


Political security

Let me start with our shared interests in regional peace and stability.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of ASEAN this year, it is instructive to recall its remarkable achievements. ASEAN’s half-century of building trust, creating habits of cooperation and fostering regional economic integration has been integral to South East Asia’s transformation from poverty and conflict to peace and prosperity.  ASEAN has proven itself to be resilient in minimising conflict between its 10 members. It has provided stability for the region more broadly, including by building relations with external powers. 

Australia has benefitted from this achievement, which, in making our neighbourhood more secure and prosperous, has supported our own peace and prosperity.

But we are witnessing a historic shift of power in the Indo-Pacific region, disruption to the global order and many uncertainties.  Some say we are at an inflection point.  Strategic competition between the major powers is playing out in Southeast Asia. Rising tensions in the South China Sea has the potential for miscalculation and impact on strategic trust.

ASEAN’s response to these challenges has the potential to shape expectations of acceptable strategic behaviour and reinforce a culture that respects international rules and norms that small and middle-power states rely on to protect their interests.

ASEAN has the ability to do this because it has the legitimacy of speaking as one on behalf of its ten members.  This gives its diverse members greater influence on the global stage than would be possible to achieve individually.  A united ASEAN is more than the sum of its parts. Australia is a strong supporter of ASEAN unity.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Bishop made this point in her Fullerton address in Singapore in March this year, when she said

as one of the guardians of regional norms, ASEAN should never underestimate the moral force it can exert in the form of collective diplomatic pressure”.

ASEAN also has the capacity for influence over the strategic culture of the region through its position at the centre of the region’s architecture. ASEAN has successfully brought the major powers such as the US, China, Japan, India, to its forums like the East Asia Summit (the EAS), the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

Australia is pleased to be an active member of all three forums and is deeply invested in their success. 

From Australia’s perspective, the East Asia Summit is the region’s premier forum for leaders to discuss the most pressing political, security and economic issues of our times.  With all ten ASEAN member states and key players including the United States, China and India, it has the right membership and mandate to be a potential anchor for peace and a stabiliser for our region. 

Australia’s aspiration for the EAS is for it to build trust and nurture dialogue and collaboration on regional security issues.  The EAS has made some very good progress in recent years and Australia is committed to working with ASEAN to make it an even more effective and responsive body.

ASEAN forums like the ARF and the ADMM Plus also provide meaningful and practical opportunities for countries of the region to improve cooperation, capacity and understanding on security issues amongst practitioners and experts.  Australia focuses efforts on leading activities on maritime security, counter-terrorism and cyber security in the ARF and the ADMM Plus and we are proud of the progress that has been made and the relationships formed.  

Australia has many programs designed to build ASEAN capacity and deepen cooperation in areas including immigration, customs and law enforcement, countering human trafficking and supporting safe labour migration.

Australia has taken a leading role in working with ASEAN member states to fight human trafficking.  The Australia-Asia Program to Combat Trafficking in Persons is a $50 million commitment over 5 years to strengthen criminal justice responses to trafficking.  The program has many claims to success. Here in Cambodia it is working with the Central Authority to help share evidence across borders in trafficking cases. AAPTIP notably facilitated collaboration between Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia to convict 8 traffickers who enslaved more than 1500 fishers in Indonesia’s Maluku province in 2015.  

Southeast Asia’s geographic proximity to Australia and location at the junction of the Indian and Pacific Oceans means its stability; security and prosperity will continue to have a major impact on Australia. 

Southeast Asia has no regional grouping alternative to ASEAN.  ASEAN’s security challenges are our security challenges.  We need to work together as regional partners in our response to transnational threats that require cross-border cooperation and challenges to the regional rules-based order.  Australia is strongly supportive of ASEAN and heavily invested in its success.


Economic opportunity

ASEAN is also very important to Australia’s economic prosperity.

Over the past 15 years, ASEAN’s combined economy has quadrupled to US$2.5 trillion.  On average, market growth is about 4.5%, making it one of the top three centres of global growth.  It is an increasing destination for global Foreign Direct Investment.  If ASEAN were considered as a single economic entity, it would be the world’s 6th largest economy.

As a bloc, ASEAN is currently Australia’s third largest trading partner accounting for 15% of Australia’s total trade.  In 2015, two-way trade totalled $90 billion while two-way investment reached nearly $230 billion.  Australia is ASEAN’s ninth largest trading partner, accounting for around 2.3% of ASEAN’s total trade.  

With its large and growing population of 630 million people, young working age population and rising middle class, it has the right metrics to underpin its prospects for continuing economic dynamism.   There is a strong fit between Australia’s capacity to meet ASEAN’s primary growth drivers in sectors like education and financial services, agribusiness, infrastructure and resources.

Australia and ASEAN have worked hard together to create the right conditions for growing our trade.  Our network of FTAs – both bilateral and regional – has supported our growing trade relationship.  At the bilateral level, we have FTAs with Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand and we are currently negotiating an FTA with Indonesia.  At the regional level we have the AANZFTA – the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement which is still regarded as ASEAN most comprehensive trade agreement to date. A General Review of AANZFTA is scheduled for 2017-18 and will provide an opportunity to improve outcomes for business and investment.

To assist the technical capacities of ASEAN member states to implement their AANZFTA commitments, particularly the less developed ones - Australia, New Zealand and ASEAN set up an economic support program in the ASEAN Secretariat. 

Known as the AANZFTA Economic Cooperation Support Program, it works hard to build capacity among ASEAN Member States to understand and implement 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 to implement AANZFTA, Australian and ASEAN trade officials have built up remarkable mutual understanding and respect.

Key outcomes of this program in Cambodia include assistance in drafting and finalisation of the national Competition Law.

We are also working together with ASEAN and ASEANs other FTA partners, India, Japan, China, Korea and New Zealand to negotiate the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – the RCEP.  This is no mean undertaking – upon conclusion it would involve half the world’s population and 30 percent of GDP.    

Quite apart from our collaboration on FTAs, Australia has supported ASEAN’s ambitions on closer regional economic integration and inclusive economic growth for decades.

The ASEAN-Australia Development Cooperation Program II is the latest version of a program that has been running for over 40 years. The program has a special character in that it is based in the ASEAN Secretariat and is not about what Australia thinks ASEAN needs, but about what ASEAN itself identifies as priorities. 

ASEAN Ambassadors in Jakarta recently reviewed this program and described it as “changing the landscape” and “leading the way partners work with ASEAN”. 

AADCPII has been integral in supporting ASEAN’s priorities to improve connectivity in infrastructure, logistics, people mobility, regulations, and digital innovation and to narrow the development gap with the larger ASEAN economies and Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

The ASEAN Summit in Vientiane in September 2016, ASEAN leaders endorsed two AADCPII products that address these priorities – the Master Plan for ASEAN Connectivity 2025 and the Initiative for ASEAN Integration Work Plan III which is ASEAN’s strategy to narrow the development gap.

We are delighted the program has been able to contribute in such a substantial way to the ASEAN Community and receive leader-level endorsement. 

Cambodia also benefits from the program’s work in the tourism sector.  As part of its support to the implementation of Mutual Recognition Arrangement on Tourism Professionals (MRA-TP), Australia has funded training for ten master trainers and nine master assessors from Cambodia. We have also helped develop common ASEAN curriculum training manuals, which are helping the Government of Cambodia to make substantial progress in developing the country’s human capital and reverse skills shortages.

In addition to these ASEAN specific programs, we have a number of new and innovative programs that focus on supporting economic growth in the Mekong region. The Mekong Business Initiative, or MBI, is an Australian-ADB partnership to improve the business-enabling environment.  Here in Cambodia MBI has supported the Ministry of Commerce, and Ministry of Industry and Handicraft to set up an e-registration and SME business licencing platform.  It is supporting Fintech and alternative finance as a tool for economic growth and development. You may have heard of Book-Me-Bus recently featured on CNN? MBI helped connect angel investors with this now thriving Cambodian online bus booking business.  

Another regional program is the Shaping Inclusive Finance Transformations in ASEAN program, or SHIFT, which is a partnership between Australia and UNCDF that is helping Mekong countries to expand access and usage of financial products and services to low-income women.  In Cambodia, SHIFT has supported the development of a low-cost remittance-based digital savings product which links savings accounts between the sender and the recipient to bring more women into the formal economy.

At the bilateral level, Australia has a $1 billion plus annual set of country-level development programs, with Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines and Indonesia.  

In Cambodia, Australia is the 5th largest bilateral aid partner, with a bilateral program of over AUD 62 million, and total flows from all sources are expected to be around $90 million. Australian support for agriculture, infrastructure, health, governance and gender equality makes a direct contribution to Cambodia’s future prosperity and to narrowing that gap.

Until recently our private sector engagement at the regional level in ASEAN had lagged somewhat behind the rest of our relationship. While we had excellent business engagement in many of the individual countries, we were lacking coordination to channel key messages at the regional level.

We are delighted to see that this is changing.  The Australia-ASEAN Business Council based in Brisbane is being reinvigorated.  Similarly, the newly established Australia-ASEAN Chamber of Commerce based in Singapore will be a great voice for Australian business in the region. On 29 April, the two chambers together with Australian officials had the first ever business dialogue with ASEAN’s peak business body, the ASEAN Business Advisory Council. We are excited about future opportunities for our businesses to have a deeper dialogue.



Of course, the foundation for Australia’s strong ties with ASEAN member states is our long standing and extensive people to people links. These close personal ties have been forged through education, diaspora, and through our communities.  These ties enhance our understanding of each other, our policies and systems, which is vital to our cooperation.

Our links through education date back to before the original Colombo Plan.  Last year, Australia welcomed 92,000 students from ASEAN countries, each of whom will develop life-long connections to Australia.  Last year, there were over 1,400 Cambodian students studying at Australian high schools, universities and vocational institutions. There were also over 120 Cambodians on Australian Government scholarships studying in Australia.

Our education ties are further enhanced through new programs like the New Colombo Plan which supports young Australians to study or work in the Indo-Pacific to learn more about the incredible people, societies and diverse cultures of our neighbourhood.  Since the program began in 2014, over 7,700 NCP Alumni have or are currently participating in the scheme in ASEAN countries.  In Cambodia, over 370 Australian students have either studied or done an internship since 2015 and we will welcome 440 students this year, which makes Cambodia the 5th most popular NCP destination.

The ASEAN diaspora is an important and vibrant part of the fabric of the Australian community. Over 1.3 million Australian residents were born in ASEAN countries or have Southeast Asian ancestry, of whom some 28,000 are Cambodians living in Australia.

The Australia-ASEAN Council is a body charged with enhancing our cultural, sporting, and people-to-people ties.  One of its flagship programs is the ASEAN-Australia Emerging Leaders Program, or the A2ELP.  Earlier this year, 10 social entrepreneurs from each ASEAN country and 3 Australians engaged in an intense program in Australia that fostered closer relationships and enhanced their entrepreneurship skills.  We hope their friendships and collaboration will continue for years to come.

There are many other areas of cooperation under ASEAN’s socio-cultural pillar to mention, and time is too short to give more than passing reference to only a few. From our cooperation in building regional health capacity to eliminate diseases like malaria, to animal diseases like foot and mouth, through to our work in improving regional disaster and emergency response capacity, Australia is known as a trusted partner.


Australia and ASEAN relations for the future

Some of you may be aware that Prime Minister Turnbull has taken the historic step to invite ASEAN Leaders to Australia for an ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in 2018. It will be held in Sydney in March 2018.

The Special Summit is an unprecedented opportunity to reinforce Australia’s commitment to strengthening our partnership with ASEAN and generate fresh momentum. The Prime Minister is personally very invested in it.

We appreciate that it is also a sign of how much ASEAN values Australia as a partner, given this is an opportunity afforded to very few.

We want it to deliver practical outcomes that will advance our shared interests in peace and security and economic prosperity.

The centrepiece will be a Leaders’ Summit and Retreat, chaired by the Prime Minister.

A Business Summit will be held in conjunction with the Summit. The Business Summit will bring together business leaders from ASEAN and Australia to seek insights about how to further boost trade and investment. We envisage that business leaders will report to Leaders on their discussions.  There will be an SME and CEO component to it.

Other side events will include a counter-terrorism conference and youth activities.

We want the Special Summit to mark the high priority we place on our relations with South East Asia and ASEAN, and use this historic occasion to elevate and enhance our cooperation for the future.

In closing, Australia has a profound and enduring interest in ASEAN.  As longstanding partners, close neighbours and friends, it’s in our shared interests to work together to meet the security and economic challenges of the 21st century.  Southeast Asia is Australia’s immediate neighbourhood where the future lies and our warm people-to-people relations lie at the very foundation of this trusted partnership.