Nearly half a century has passed since Australia became ASEAN’s first dialogue partner in 1974. Just as the Indo-Pacific region that Australia and the 10 countries of ASEAN call home has evolved over those decades, so too has the ASEAN-Australia relationship. Australia has been a steadfast partner for ASEAN over the years, supporting ASEAN priorities as we deepen and broaden our cooperation.
There have been significant milestones along the way. We became strategic partners in 2014 and ASEAN leaders visited in Sydney in 2018 for an historic special summit. We have held biennial summits since. We have ramped up cooperation during the pandemic, recognising that we cannot respond to and recover from Covid-19 alone.
But October 27 marked a very special moment in the evolution of the ASEAN-Australia partnership, for two reasons. First, we held the first annual ASEAN-Australia Summit. And second, ASEAN and Australia agreed to establish a comprehensive strategic partnership that is “meaningful, substantive and mutually beneficial”.
Annual summits, in which ASEAN leaders will meet with the Australian prime minster every year, provide us with a mechanism at the highest level for deeper consultation, discussion and cooperation.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison used the first of these regular summits to reinforce Australia’s commitment to ASEAN centrality and to concrete cooperation under the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).
Leaders discussed the breadth of our partnership across ASEAN’s three pillars, notably our shared response to and recovery from the pandemic. The prime minister committed to share an additional 10 million vaccine doses from Australia’s domestic supply.
The decision to establish an ASEAN-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership underscores Australia’s commitment to ASEAN’s central role in the Indo-Pacific and will position our partnership for the future.
Australia is honoured by the opportunity to become a Comprehensive Strategic Partner for ASEAN, which reflects the strength of our relationship and our ties as neighbours.
This is of course much more than a label. It is about substance, and will provide us with a framework for deeper cooperation. We look forward to starting work on it with our ASEAN friends.
We are backing this up with new programmes to address the complex, emerging challenges of the future.
At the summit, Prime Minister Morrison announced new Australia for ASEAN programmes, valued at A$154 million (US$114.6 million), to drive cooperation, support implementation of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and deepen Australia’s investment in the region’s future.
An Australia for ASEAN Futures Initiative, valued at A$124 million, will fund projects jointly identified by ASEAN and Australia under our CSP, including Covid-19 recovery, terrorism, transnational crime, energy security, transition to lower emissions technology, the circular economy and healthy oceans.
One hundred new Australia for ASEAN scholarships will support emerging ASEAN leaders to study in Australia in fields that advance the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific under its priority areas of cooperation.
And an Australia for ASEAN Digital Transformation and Future Skills Initiative will support 350 vocational education and training scholarships, technical assistance partnerships between Australian and ASEAN institutions, and new skills policy dialogue.
These investments represent the largest ever increase in Australia’s development cooperation programme with ASEAN. They build on packages announced by Morrison and foreign minister Marise Payne last year and Australia’s ongoing development partnerships with ASEAN members.
Transparency with our ASEAN friends is important to Australia. At our first annual summit, the prime minister addressed up front the new capability and technology sharing partnership between Australia, the UK and the US – Aukus. Communication on this is a priority for Australia.
The prime minister emphasised that Aukus does not change Australia’s commitment to ASEAN centrality and the ASEAN-led architecture, and assured all ASEAN members of our deep and abiding commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and to our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Australia sees ASEAN at the centre – the very heart – of our region, the Indo-Pacific. A strong, resilient ASEAN is vital to our region’s success and supports Australia’s security and prosperity.
As it faces the challenges of the future, ASEAN can continue to count on reliable, responsive, comprehensive partnership from Australia, aligned with ASEAN priorities. Australia will be with ASEAN every step of the way.
Will Nankervis is Australian ambassador to ASEAN
THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK