Australia, Asean will remain natural partners

  • Articles and op-ed

NEARLY half a century has passed since Australia became Asean's first dialogue partner in 1974. Just as the region we share has grown and evolved in that time, so too has Australia's valued partnership with Asean.

We became strategic partners in 2014. Asean leaders visited Sydney for a special summit in 2018. Last year, we agreed to enhance dialogue at the highest level with annual leaders' summits, the first of which occurred in October.

As the region's evolution continues, Australia's vision remains consistent: an Indo-Pacific that
is open, secure, resilient and prosperous. It is an Indo-Pacific in which all countries, large and small, are able to be themselves within a framework that protects and respects sovereignty and
resists coercion, unilateral assertiveness and breaches of international rules and norms.

Asean's outlook on the Indo-Pacific resonates with this vision. Australia sees Asean at the centre of the Indo-Pacific.

Australia is playing a more active role in maintaining and supporting this vision — as we have also long said that we would do. We are doing this by deepening our relationships across the region and ensuring we are a capable partner that can contribute to our region, whether that is on access to Covid-19 vaccines, infrastructure development, security or economic recovery from the pandemic.

As part of a wider visit to Southeast Asia, I am in Kuala Lumpur today, meeting with Malaysian colleagues, including Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah. Over the coming days, I will discuss with regional counterparts the challenges and opportunities we face together.

Our region is experiencing increasing strategic competition. We believe that we can have a positive influence upon the shape of our region by strengthening our friendships, particularly with Asean, but also through groupings, such as the Pacific Islands Forum and the Quad.

The Aukus (Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States) agreement sits firmly within with this objective. It will make us a more capable ally and partner.

It will enable us to play a more effective role in enhancing regional security and stability for the benefit of all nations. Our vision remains the same as it was before, but our ability to help ensure that vision is a reality is considerably enhanced.

That is why we are proud to have become the first country to agree to establish a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) with Asean.

Our partnerships are our greatest strategic asset. As Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob acknowledged at the recent Asean-Australia Summit, we have deepened cooperation during the pandemic, including to support regional vaccine access, increase health security and address mental health challenges.

As Ismail Sabri said, this would "greatly assist Asean in pursuing its Comprehensive Recovery Framework to implement recovery strategies and build a future that is sustainable and resilient".

Australia has shared more than four million Covid-19 vaccine doses with Asean partners. We will share another 10 million from our domestic supply by mid-2022.

Australia's Covid-19 recovery is inextricably tied to that of Asean. A healthy, stable, and resilient Asean is vital to our region's success and supports Australia's own health, security and prosperity.

The Asean-Australia CSP complements our strong bilateral partnerships across the region, including the CSP agreed between Australian and Malaysian prime ministers in January, which is driving our relations to new heights.

Malaysia, of course, played a central role in enhancing the Asean-Australia partnership, having been our Country Coordinator from 2018 to 2021.

As a comprehensive strategic partner, Australia is committed to working with Asean to address regional challenges.

Australia will invest A$154 million in the Asean partnership over 10 years. This will cover projects concerning complex challenges, including health security, terrorism and transnational crime, energy security, promoting the circular economy and healthy oceans, new Australia for Asean Scholarships for emerging Asean leaders to study in Australia, and support for our region's future skills needs and its response to rapid digitalisation, through vocational education and training scholarships.

This builds on the A$500 million investment in Southeast Asia's recovery that Australia announced last year, and our bilateral development partnerships across the region.

The decision to enhance our relations comes at a critical time for regional recovery, peace and stability, including in relation to Myanmar.

Australia again calls on Myanmar to engage constructively with Asean and implement the Five-Point Consensus.

We call for violence against civilians to cease and for the release of all those unjustly detained, including Australian Professor Sean Turnell.

Australia strongly supports Asean's leadership in response to the crisis. We remain deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation in Myanmar, and will continue working with partners to respond, including through our support to the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance.

Asean can count on Australia as a reliable and responsive partner.

As Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said, Australia and Asean are not just good neighbours, we are good friends. We are, and will remain, natural partners at the centre of the Indo-Pacific.

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