Institute of Foreign Affairs, Vientiane speech

  • Speech, check against delivery
Subjects: Australia/Laos relationship, ASEAN, Colombo Scholarships.
25 February 2022

Morning, ladies and gentlemen. His Excellency Phoxay Khaykhamphithoune, Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Virot Sundara, Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, His Excellency Australia's Ambassador to the Lao PDR, and Madame Vithaya Xayavong, Deputy Director General Institute for Foreign Affairs, distinguished ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, Vice Minister Phoxay, for your invitation here today, and thank you, DDG Vithaya, for your very kind introduction this morning.

Ladies and gentlemen, it's a great pleasure to be here with you in person, after the challenges that we have dealt with as countries, regionally and globally, in the last two years. This is actually my third visit to the Lao PDR, and each visit brings greater warmth and greater friendship between our two countries. 2022, as you know, marks the 70th anniversary of formal diplomatic ties between our two countries. So it is indeed very special to be here in Vientiane to mark that very significant milestone of continuous diplomatic relations over seven decades. Our countries lie at opposite ends of the Southeast Asian arc, but despite our geographic distance, 70 years of formal ties between our two nations represent Laos’ longest lasting unbroken diplomatic connection with any state. Australia deeply values the friendship that we share.

Since the 1970s, Australia's relationship with Laos has been defined in large measure by our perspective on the importance of Southeast Asia, particularly through the ASEAN lens. In 1974, Australia became ASEAN's first ever dialogue partner, and since then, Australia has seen ASEAN as at the heart of the open, inclusive, and prosperous region. ASEAN is also Australia's second largest trading bloc, so we are invested economically and commercially in the growth and success of our region.

The fact that we both call the Indo-Pacific home means that economic growth and national security in Australia and Laos are affected by many of the same regional issues. That is particularly true today at a time of heightened strategic competition within the global and regional environment and being challenged in a way that we have not seen for many decades. The evolution of the Mekong region and the Indo-Pacific more broadly has had profound implications for both of us. All along the way, we have valued and encouraged engagement and partnership.

And over the years we've supported each other on many issues in the global stage. When the Lao PDR wanted to join the World Trade Organization in 2013, for example, Australia was there in support. And when Australia was working to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council that same year, the Lao PDR supported our candidacy.

We share nearly two decades of police cooperation with the Lao Ministry of Public Security on transnational and organised crime, and Australia has been a proud development partner of Laos for decades. Since the earliest days of the Colombo Plan, which saw the first students from Laos travel to study in Australian universities. And now, under the New Colombo Plan, Australian students come to Laos to study here.

The first Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge, which opened 28 years ago remains an enduring symbol of the connection between the Australian and Lao people. Likewise, we've been proud to support the development of education and skills in Laos through programs like the Laos-Australia Institute.

This partnership between our two governments is aimed at building skill levels in support of economic and social development in Laos. We're also very proud of the Basic Education, Quality and Access in Laos program, the BEQUAL Program, which has been working to lift primary education in Laos since 2015.

Ladies and gentlemen, of course, the last two years have presented us all with challenges we never expected in our lifetimes. Australia has also been very proud of our COVID-19 pandemic collaboration with our regional partners, both internationally and at home.

Personally, I am particularly grateful for the support of Laos community leaders near my home in Western Sydney as we responded to COVID-19 through communicating information about testing and vaccination programs to the Lao community, including in the Lao language, and in allowing these services to be provided locally at the Lao Buddhist Temple in Edensor Park and the Lao Cultural Centre in Fairfield.

I've been living and working in Western Sydney for over 25 years, and I know that the Lao diaspora communities continue to enrich Australia and are cherished members of the broader Australian community.

We've also been pleased to share over one million vaccine doses with Laos, along with medical equipment and technical support as you, along with the rest of the region and Australia, work to recover from the pandemic. And I have to say Australia is also exceptionally grateful to Laos as our ASEAN Country Coordinator for helping us to secure agreement to the ASEAN Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

From last year, even as we worked through the health and economic challenges that the pandemic threw at us, we were able to achieve the outcome of the first ever ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with a bilateral partner. And as I discussed with Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith yesterday, Australia is very pleased to be working with Laos as our ASEAN Country Coordinator through to 2024. We're now focused on the implementation of our CSP with ASEAN, as well as the $154 million Australia for ASEAN Futures Initiative announced by Prime Minister Morrison at the ASEAN Australia Summit last year.

And I'm delighted today to launch one part of that initiative; 100 Australia for ASEAN Scholarships to support emerging ASEAN leaders to study in Australia in fields that advance the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Applications for the 2023 scholarships opened this month and here in Laos, ten ASEAN Scholarships will be awarded.

Australia has a long and proud history of scholarships being provided to Lao students. The first scholarships were awarded in 1954, not long after our countries established  diplomatic relations. These scholarships have ensured that students can gain the skills and knowledge that enable the driving of positive change and development here in Laos. And just as importantly, they have enhanced mutual understanding between our two countries, built enduring personal connections and lifelong friendships, and strengthen the people to people ties that serve as the lifeblood of the bilateral relationship.

And I'd like to highlight two particularly impressive women among our Australian alumni, leaders in the Lao community, Madame Chansoda Phonethip and Madame Viengsam Indavong. Madame Viengsam studied an Advanced Diploma in Business at the St. George TAFE College in Sydney and a Masters of Disability Policy and Practice at Flinders University in South Australia, and she is the Managing Director of the Association for Autism, Lao PDR. She established the first Autism Association in Laos and has made a significant impact in the Lao disability space. Madame Chansoda is the Vice President of the Lao Women's Union and I understand is a passionate advocate for empowering women, working closely with government ministries, the private sector, and non-profit organisations to improve gender equality from grassroots to national levels. And of course, Foreign Minister Saleumxay is one of the most preeminent Australian alumni, not only here in Laos, but anywhere. We're proud to have been a part of his journey to high office, and we look forward to supporting many more Lao students through the future.

In this spirit and as a demonstration of Australia's commitment to supporting Laos, as Laos prepares for its ASEAN Chair year in 2024, I'm also pleased to announce today that Australia will support 24 emerging diplomats and officials to spend four months attached to Laos’ permanent mission to ASEAN in Jakarta, providing them with invaluable experience and skills working at the regional level. While in Jakarta, these emerging diplomats and officials will have the opportunity to work with counterparts from recent ASEAN chair countries, meet with Australian diplomats in Jakarta, led by and including our Ambassador to ASEAN, Will Nankervis.

I look forward to seeing the first six participants depart in March and to following their success, and Australia will continue to explore further initiatives to support Laos’ ASEAN Chair in the lead up to 2024. This is a commitment I have given both to your Prime Minister yesterday and to the Foreign Minister yesterday evening.

Colleagues, as close friends and partners, Australia and Laos, I know, will continue to support each other as we recover from the impact of the pandemic. And to mark our 70th year of bilateral relations, I have a number of new and expanded initiatives to announce.

Firstly, I'm pleased to announce that Australia will support a second phase of BEQUAL, the basic education program that I mentioned earlier. With an estimated budget of $28 million over the next four years, BEQUAL Phase Two will continue the significant progress made under the first phase of the scheme since 2015. It helps the Ministry of Education and Sports to complete a national rollout of the curriculum for the full five grades of primary education. A stronger basic education system contributes to a more skilled and productive workforce, and that in turn helps make a nation more resistant to shocks, to lift incomes, and to contribute to stable economic growth that benefits not only your country but our entire region.

And as Australia's Minister for Women, as well as Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs, I'm particularly pleased that this funding will support girls’ education. I know that quality education is critical to women and girls’ empowerment and social development, and is a strong support for national economic growth.

I'm pleased to announce today that we will also extend funding for the Laos-Australia Institute, a partnership between our two countries that has been working hard since 2014 to support economic and social development. The first two phases of the Institute delivered Australia Awards scholarships, Laos-Australia National scholarships, and training and technical assistance for a number of people here in Laos. The next phase, through to 2025, is aimed at continuing to deliver highly skilled professionals into the Laos labour market. And more broadly, we remain committed to supporting growth and sustainability across the Mekong as a whole.

I remember my Prime Minister, Prime Minister Morrison announcing the Mekong-Australia Partnership at the ASEAN Australia Summit in 2020. Under this partnership, Australia is working with Laos on economic challenges by supporting public financial management reform. Building capacity in this area helps to equip decision makers with the tools that they need to make timely policy decisions that will impact the long-term prosperity of Laos.

Specific areas of engagement include state owned enterprise reform, tax administration and debt management and management of the education budget. Australia is also providing funding over four years to support the World Bank to work with government officials.

Ladies and gentlemen, Australia will also strengthen environmental resilience through the Mekong-Australia Partnership to support improved water resources management to strengthen food security and climate change resilience for communities in Laos and other Mekong countries. Women's participation and leadership will be a key focus.

And finally, ladies and gentlemen, Australia will contribute at least $10 million through our Partnerships for Infrastructure initiative to improve transport connectivity within Laos, and with Thailand and Vietnam. This funding will be part of a much larger multi-donor initiative to help Laos realise its economic potential, including by integrating climate resilience and promoting gender and social inclusion through the development of quality transport infrastructure. It will also support upgrades to a key East-West connectivity route and ASEAN Priority Project Laos: National Road Two in the north.

On a different but equally important note, I mentioned policing earlier and the excellent work our two police systems have been doing together over many years. I would like to see Australia and Laos develop even closer working arrangements between our law enforcement agencies, building on existing collaboration on transnational and organised crime. And I look forward to seeing our defence cooperation continue to grow, particularly following on from my very important visit here as Defence Minister in 2017 and following the recent appointment of a new defence attaché at our embassy, Wing Commander Lauren McHardy, who is in fact the first female defence attaché in Laos.

Finally, I'd like to talk about Australia's approach to our region and our vision. Australia's vision is an Indo-Pacific that is open, resilient and inclusive, and which has ASEAN at its heart. It's a region underpinned by rules and international law. Where disputes are resolved peacefully. Where sovereign States, large or small, are able to make their own sovereign decisions in their national interest. However, the system that has brought our region peace, stability and prosperity, is today under strain. The pressure on rules and norms and institutions is more acute. And tensions over territorial claims are escalating. And that is without taking into account the impact of COVID-19. Not to mention current events in Ukraine.

We do recognize that increasing strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific creates challenges for all of us. Southeast Asia matters profoundly to Australia and to Australia's interests. We are the closest of neighbours, important economic partners. And we share a commitment to working together as we recover from COVID-19. Our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with ASEAN will allow us to work even more closely in addressing complex and emerging challenges, including in health security, energy security and transnational crime.

Australia is committed to working with Southeast Asia in support of its most pressing priorities. And we are backing this commitment with substantial new investments, including over $620 million to support vaccine access in the region. Support for sustainable and high-quality infrastructure. Scholarships and training to build the capacity of people in the Mekong sub region. Sharing technical knowledge to strengthen trade and investment across the region. Bolstering environmental sustainability. Responding to climate change. Improving water security and tackling marine pollution. And implementing approximately a billion dollars in development cooperation to support Southeast Asia's economic recovery, health security and social stability.

Our vision for the Indo-Pacific is clear. And I'm so proud to say the Laos-Australia partnership is thriving, after 70 years. We have done a great deal together across the widest range of fields. Colleagues, in the year ahead and the years ahead beyond that, there will be many global and regional challenges that will test us all. These require strong partnerships, a willingness to collaborate, and a creative and open approach to problem solving. The Laos-Australia relationship has all of those qualities. So I'm confident that in the decades ahead we will be continuing to celebrate even greater growth in what we do together. As I said to Foreign Minister Saleumxay and Prime Minister Phankham yesterday, I am confident that this visit continues another important step in the already successful relationship between Laos and Australia. And I look forward to continuing to deepen our cooperation further.

Thank you very much.

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