Special lecture to the International Institute for Strategic Studies - A shared future: Australia, ASEAN and Southeast Asia

  • Speech, check against delivery



It is always a pleasure to be back in Singapore, a country I have visited many times, including as Shadow Foreign Minister.

And it is a great privilege to be here as Australia’s new Foreign Minister.

I had the honour of meeting today with your Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister – leaders here in Singapore but also in the region.

I look forward to working with them in the years ahead – deepening the connections between our countries, and also partnering in the region.

It is a region we share.

It is a region I know well.

It is the region I am from. 

It says something about modern Australia that last week I was able to return to the Malaysian city of my birth as Australia’s foreign minister.

And it says something about Australia’s foreign policy.

Because at its core, foreign policy is an expression of national values, national interests and national identity.

So it starts with who we are.

There are 25 million Australians – more than one million of whom claim Southeast Asian ancestry.

My Malaysian heritage is one of at least 270 ancestries now represented in Australia.

And I am not the only Malaysian-born member of the Government!

Newly elected parliamentarians have origins in Vietnam, Laos, India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and elsewhere. 

There are more Indigenous parliamentarians than ever before.

Those of you who’ve spent time in Australia will not be surprised by the fact that our Parliament is ever more reflective of our modern multicultural society.

A society where more than half of our population was born overseas or has a parent born overseas.

And those of you who’ve spent time in Australia will also know something about Australians in general.

That we are curious and optimistic people, interested in the world around us.

That we seek to travel, explore, engage and understand.

That we value openness, opportunity, fairness and respect.

That we are a nation proud of our diverse heritage, a nation that brings together people from across the world, a nation that shares common ground with so many of the world’s peoples.

And that we see ourselves not as a former colony, but firmly in the centre of global activity and enterprise, part of the most vibrant and dynamic region in the world.

The region – why ASEAN matters

We share a region and we share a future.

Our region is being reshaped and we have to navigate this period of change together.

This is because while we may have our differences, we can all agree that we want to live in a region that is stable, prosperous and respectful of sovereignty.

Where disputes are guided by international law and norms, not by power and size.

A region that is peaceful and predictable.

Where our countries and peoples can cooperate, trade and thrive.

Where our relations are based on partnership and respect.

A regional order with ASEAN at the centre.

Australia is committed to ASEAN centrality. Today, I want to spend some time talking about what that means to Australia.

The first element of ASEAN centrality is geographical. That may sound obvious, but there’s more to it.

Our continent is bounded by the Indian and Pacific Oceans, with Southeast Asia between them, connecting them, at the centre.

Our links to the world are shaped by the contours of Southeast Asia’s mainland, through its archipelagos and around its islands. 

What happens in, to and through this region will be strategically central to Australia’s future.

ASEAN centrality means that we will always think about our security in the context of your security.

We understand deeply the ways in which they are interconnected.

We believe that Australia must find its security in Asia, not from Asia. And that means, above all, in Southeast Asia.

We know we will always be better off in a world where the rules – whether they govern trade or the maritime domain, or the environment or military engagement – are clear, mutually negotiated and consistently followed.

And, for that, we need to continue to build alignment together and with others to help shape outcomes in ways that support our collective interests.

ASEAN is already essential to building alignment around shared objectives.

Each week, somewhere in Southeast Asia, Australians and their ASEAN counterparts are using our extensive network of dialogues and forums to weave together our collective interests and purpose on issues from counterterrorism to climate change, from energy to education, from cyber threats to phytosanitary standards.

I want to see more of that. 

As a regional organisation that brings together intrinsically diverse states, ASEAN has helped bring order, security and prosperity.

It was your esteemed colleague Bilahari Kausikan who said if ASEAN did not exist, we would have to invent something very much like it to keep the peace.

Its rules-based approach to managing relations between its diverse members is one of its strengths.

Because ASEAN embeds the regional interest as part of the national interests of each member.

And it draws in all regional powers to engage with it as an entity and with its members. This is its core strength.

That holds the region together.

As an entity, ASEAN is indispensable.

I recognise ASEAN’s profound contribution in creating the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and the work of Southeast Asian states influencing the progress of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

These agreements have helped shape the regional and global order – the inheritance we have today.

Together, all these strengths – ASEAN’s representation of diverse states, how it amplifies their voices, and balances major power interests – are the ways ASEAN holds the centre of the region. 

The East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus – all structures for this regional engagement.

Not to solve all its problems, but to give space to states which have a legitimate interest in the region to contribute to a strategic equilibrium.

All countries that seek to work with the region have a responsibility to engage constructively with, and through, ASEAN – including major powers.


Respectfully, I would like to draw out a couple of contemporary challenges to ASEAN centrality.

First, Myanmar.

The military coup in Myanmar has reversed years of democratic, economic and development gains.

And the regime continues to inflict horrific violence on its own people.

Australia urges an end to violence, and open access for humanitarian assistance.

We call for the release of those unjustly detained, including Australian Professor Sean Turnell.

And we call for inclusive dialogue to support the peaceful return of Myanmar to democracy.

There is no doubt that the crisis in Myanmar is undermining regional security and stability.

Australia backs ASEAN’s attempts to restore dialogue, engage with Myanmar’s democratic voices and end the violence. We strongly support the work of the ASEAN Chair’s Special Envoy.

We call on the regime to respect ASEAN’s role by implementing the ASEAN Five Point Consensus without delay.

I have had extensive discussions in the region about the situation in recent weeks, and frustration with the lack of engagement by the Tatmadaw is clear.

Another crisis is further afield but has direct implications for ASEAN and the region.

By invading Ukraine, Russia is also attacking the norms of the international order.

The invasion was unprovoked, it is illegal, it is immoral and inhumane.

It has brought death and suffering on innocents.

It has exacerbated global hunger, disrupted food exports, increased energy prices and raised fertiliser costs, causing global food prices to spike.

Russia’s blockade of seaports has disrupted Ukraine’s growing season and capacity to export agricultural commodities, meaning millions of tons of products are unable to reach global markets – with serious consequences for food security in many countries, including in Southeast Asia.

I observe that many in the region have come to see this not as some distant conflict but a dangerous strike against the principles of this region’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.

I recognise Singapore’s sanctions against Russia as a mark of its resolve to support these principles, as well as the decisions by eight Southeast Asian states to join the global majority at the UN General Assembly in condemning Russia’s invasion.

I note the historical comparisons offered by Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen.

Russia’s actions are an assertion that might should be right.

That a larger country is entitled to invade and subjugate a smaller neighbour – to decide whether another country can even exist.

We can all agree that such behaviour must not be normalised.

It is especially important for countries that play leading roles in international fora, and countries with influence on Russia, to exert their influence to end this war.

This includes China, as a great power, a Permanent Member of the Security Council, and with its “no limits partnership” with Russia.

Exerting such influence would do a great deal to build confidence in our own region.

The current situation calls to mind a comment by a former Australian prime minister who you will all know is deeply committed to the region, Paul Keating. Many years ago, he envisaged that:

“As [China]… steps up to a larger leadership role it will at the same time need to be willing to accept and respect restraints on the way it uses its immense strength, because the acceptance of such restraints by great powers is the key to any successful and durable international order.”

More recently, your Prime Minister has observed that:

“To grow its international influence beyond… military strength, China needs to wield this strength with restraint and legitimacy.”

The region and the world is now looking at Beijing’s actions in relation to Ukraine.

But this has also been true in respect of its regional actions, as its strategic outreach has intensified.

The kind of restraint Prime Minister Lee and Mr Keating reference would give the region and the world greater confidence.

Regardless of the character of leadership Beijing chooses to demonstrate, we all have our own choices to make, and our own agency to exercise.

We are more than just supporting players in a grand drama of global geopolitics, on a stage dominated by great powers.

It is up to all of us to create the kind of region we aspire to – a stable, peaceful, prosperous and secure region.

It is up to all of us to work together, to assert our resolve to uphold the rules and norms that have underpinned our growth and stability – that have served the interests of all nations, large and small.

It is up to all of us to work towards a strategic equilibrium in the region.

Again, ASEAN is at the centre of this imperative.

Australia’s contributions to the region

Australia has the honour of being a Comprehensive Strategic Partner of ASEAN, which places even greater responsibilities on us to contribute to this equilibrium.

We are deepening our cooperation under this partnership, in areas of shared interest like combatting climate change, building health security and advancing the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

Australia has long contributed to security in the region, including through our longest-standing regional security mechanism – the Five Power Defence Arrangements with Malaysia and Singapore.

These arrangements commit Australia – along with the United Kingdom and New Zealand – to consult in case of an armed attack on Malaysia or Singapore.

Long an indispensable anchor for regional security cooperation, we are expanding cooperation through these arrangements, on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter-terrorism, and maritime security.

This is strengthened by the depth of training, exchanges and intelligence cooperation we share with Singapore under our bilateral Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

We share the world’s longest maritime boundary with Indonesia, requiring considerable cooperation – whether that be on border protection, in the fight against  transnational crime and human trafficking, or in the management of our shared marine resources.

We know that tackling our shared challenges goes beyond our shared borders.

Our Government has made clear our intentions to enhance our defence, maritime and economic cooperation with Pacific Island countries.

We see this as two sides of the same coin – working across the Indo-Pacific to build the region we want.

And we will work to bridge our cooperation across Southeast Asia and the Pacific to address shared challenges.

But we can do more – we can seek new partnerships and arrangements that also contribute to these objectives.

We see the Quad as working alongside ASEAN and other regional architecture to strengthen our shared interests with the countries of Southeast Asia.

That’s why my Prime Minister and I travelled to Tokyo to the Quad leaders meeting right after our election.

We know that coordinating closely with our ally the United States, Japan and India brings real benefits to the region.

Benefits like COVID-19 vaccines, coordinated action on climate change, responding to infrastructure needs, and the sharing of enhanced and transparent data to improve maritime domain awareness across the Indo-Pacific.

Guided by the principles of ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, we see these regional powers as partners to help sustain and build the regional order we seek.

An order framed by a strategic equilibrium where countries are not forced to choose but can make their own sovereign choices, including about their alignments and partnerships.

So it should not be remarkable that Australia would seek enhanced defence capability from our allies, in the form of nuclear-powered submarines.

This is not a new capability in our region - other Indo-Pacific countries already possess nuclear-powered submarines and have been operating them for decades.

And some have nuclear-armed submarines.

Let me emphasise that Australia’s submarines will be nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed.

Australia has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons.

We know that acquiring these submarines comes with a responsibility to strengthen the global non-proliferation regime.

We will proceed transparently and in cooperation with the IAEA. Indeed I met with the Director-General of the IAEA earlier this week.

And we will keep our key partners informed as we progress.

So, for Australia, ASEAN centrality does not mean ASEAN only. But it does mean that our ASEAN partners can count on Australia to understand and respect the interests of the countries of Southeast Asia.

Economic centrality

Another aspect of ASEAN centrality for Australia is economic.

Other countries and areas of the world will continue to be vital to our prosperity, as they will be to yours. 

But in any match-up of economic complementarity with growth potential, the greatest trade and economic opportunities for Australia over the next thirty years lie in the ASEAN region. 

Already, Australia’s two-way trade with ASEAN is greater than our trade with Japan or the United States – worth more than $100 billion.

The ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (AANZFTA) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP), as well as bilateral trade agreements with individual ASEAN members, offer a solid foundation for further growth. 

The delegation of businesspeople that accompanied Prime Minister Albanese and me to Indonesia a few weeks ago was a clear signal that Australia wants to expand that economic relationship, to deepen trade and investment ties with Southeast Asia, and that our business community is alive to the opportunities.

Here in Singapore we have pioneering initiatives such as the Green Economy Agreement.

Once we finalise it this year, it will be a world-first government-to-government agreement that will drive trade, economic and environment cooperation as we decarbonise our economies. 

And our private sector is taking promising steps.

Australian company Sun Cable is progressing a project to construct a 4,200 kilometre undersea cable from Darwin to Singapore, to provide renewable electricity generated from what could be the world’s largest solar farm in Australia’s Northern Territory. 

This is the kind of ambition we will need to face up to the challenge of climate change and set the region up for a more prosperous future – powered by cleaner and cheaper energy.

We will be bringing more momentum to our economic links in the region by delivering an ASEAN Economic Strategy, to map current and future export and investment opportunities across key ASEAN markets for Australian business and investors.

And this will be underpinned by our commitment to strengthen the development goals of key countries across Southeast Asia through an additional $470m of official development assistance.

The Australian Government will bring this work together by establishing an Office of Southeast Asia in my Department to collaborate across ministries, states and key sectors.


Of course, even with all this deeper engagement, Australia will not always agree with the policies or actions of individual ASEAN states – any more than you always agree with each other.

But ASEAN centrality means we will never do so lightly or thoughtlessly.

Wherever possible, we will talk through such disagreements with our individual partners or, when it is necessary, collectively with all of you.

It is because we see our futures as being tied together, even more than our shared past.

Which brings me to the final aspect of ASEAN centrality for Australia, and that is our history.

When I accompanied Anthony Albanese to Jakarta on his first bilateral overseas visit as Prime Minister, we also visited Makassar.

At the university there, the Prime Minister told the story of the first known trading links between the Australian continent and the world.

These date back to at least the beginning of the 1700s, well before European settlement of Australia.

Each year, traders from Makassar would journey to the Australian continent seeking trepang (sea cucumber) from the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land.

When Australia finally established its own foreign service after the Second World War, and the countries of Southeast Asia broke from the long period of European colonisation, the first tests for Australian foreign policy came in Southeast Asia.

We threw our support behind the independence movement in Indonesia rather than the returning Dutch administration – and were the first foreign country to make contact with President Sukarno after he proclaimed Indonesian independence in August 1945.

When Indonesia formally became independent on 27 December 1949, Australia recognised Indonesian statehood that day.

We supported the formation of Malaysia during Konfrontasi.

We were the second country to recognise Singapore when it became independent in 1965.

We celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations with Cambodia, Laos and Thailand this year, and 50 years with Vietnam next year.

We became ASEAN’s first dialogue partner in 1974.

We worked with Indonesia on the Cambodian peace settlement.

APEC would not have been formed without Australia, Indonesia and other ASEAN members working together. 

So Australia has been on the right side of history in Southeast Asia.

And I am not the first foreign minister in Australia’s history to recognise the importance of our relationships with Southeast Asia.

But I am the first to make these statements as an Australian foreign minister who is from Southeast Asia.

I hope that our shared histories will help tie our futures together.

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