ASEAN & Australia: partners, but above all friends

LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA - HK Yu, PSM - The Philippine Star

Dear friends,

As some of you may have already seen in the news this week, Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese traveled to Cambodia for the Second Annual ASEAN-Australia Summit as well as the 17th East Asia Summit. The Prime Minister’s attendance is a demonstration of the importance Australia attaches to its relationship with ASEAN. It was an opportunity for Prime Minister Albanese to meet several of his ASEAN counterparts in-person for the first time, including President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr.

At both the opening and close of the summit, Prime Minister Albanese remarked on the depth and maturity of ASEAN-Australia ties. Indeed, I am very proud that Australia is ASEAN’s oldest Dialogue Partner. I would like to share with you all a few highlights from his address, as it reaffirms Australia’s commitment to Southeast Asia and what we can achieve together.

First, Australia is part of the region – geographically and politically. This means that we share a common future. For almost half a century, Australia has reached out as a steadfast partner and friend to connect and engage with our ASEAN neighbors on the basis of mutual respect and co-operation among sovereign nations. With the Philippines, this engagement has been underpinned by a strong emphasis on education, maritime security, development co-operation, combatting transnational crime and disaster preparedness. This geographic focus is a constant of Australian foreign policy.

Second, Australia was deeply honored to become a Comprehensive Strategic Partner of ASEAN in 2021. Our contemporary relationship with ASEAN is focused on driving sustainable economic growth; realizing the potential of digital economies; developing smart cities and jointly pursuing science and innovation. Not only does this play to the natural strengths of our region, but it is obviously highly complementary with the digitization agenda outlined by President Marcos in his July 2022 State of the Nation Address.

Third, the Australian Government is matching its words with action. We have committed to concrete action to implement the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and we are substantially increasing our development assistance to Southeast Asia. In our recent budget, Australia boosted development assistance to the region by AUD470 million, which includes extra-funding for the Philippines (which, at AUD85.5 million, is already Australia’s fifth largest bilateral program).

We have also committed to deepening our economic integration with our neighbors. Our leaders have agreed to an ambitious upgrade of the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area. This proposal will help to further reduce trade barriers between our countries and deliver strong outcomes for businesses, investors and more than 600 million Southeast Asian citizens. The encouraging words from President Marcos on this upgrade – particularly the potential for expansion in trade in services – speak to the benefits that both the Australian and Filipino economies can gain from this initiative. Unlocking our shared economic dynamism is key.

Significantly, Prime Minister Albanese also used the opportunity to announce the appointment of an eminent business leader, Nicholas Moore, as Australia’s Special Envoy to Southeast Asia, whose mandate is to drive delivery of a comprehensive Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040.

Fourth, as a long-time friend of Timor-Leste and its largest development partner, the Australian Government welcomes ASEAN Leaders’ in principle agreement to admit Timor-Leste as the eleventh member of ASEAN. Australia affirms its ongoing commitment to Timor-Leste to help it build capacity to enable full ASEAN membership.

Last, as we confront an increasingly complex and changing international landscape, it is more important than ever for us to seek a strategic equilibrium and to uphold a rules-based regional order with ASEAN at the center. Australia cannot accept large countries unilaterally determining the fate of smaller ones — that is why Australia has repeatedly called out Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine, which violates not only the UN Charter, but also the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.

Looking ahead, 2024 will mark the 50th anniversary of Australia becoming ASEAN’s first Dialogue Partner, and we look forward to commemorating this very special chapter in our shared history.

Australia understands the central role of ASEAN in promoting a secure and sustainable future based on dialogue and where international law and norms are upheld. The upcoming 12th ASEAN Maritime Forum and the 10th Expanded Maritime Forum, which the Philippines is hosting here in Manila in December, is a clear illustration of the value that regional co-operation provides. As President Marcos himself observed during the ASEAN-Australia Summit: “[l]et us continue this positive momentum so that we can look forward to achieving yet more in the coming years.”

Yours truly,


*      *      *

HK Yu is the Australian Ambassador to the Philippines. You can follow Ambassador Yu on Twitter @AusAmbPH.

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