LAST week, the Foreign Minister of Burma visited Australia. Almost in passing, he told me that he sees Australians as Asians. Simple as that.
Our image in Asia has changed because in recent decades we have changed. In other words, the transformation is under way.
We can and will meet all the goals outlined in yesterday's white paper on the Asian Century. If our partners already see us as being part of their future then we are more than halfway there.
Last week the President of The Philippines and his Foreign Minister also came to Canberra. In addition, I hosted a visit to Sydney by the secretary-general of ASEAN.
This habit of consulting Asia, of linking with Asia, is now upon us. And it will be enhanced. It will be enhanced by our decision to post a full-time ambassador to ASEAN in Jakarta.
Among its 10 members, ASEAN is fostering co-operation and convergence and integration. Its objective is an interconnected, competitive and resilient grouping of nations.
A moment's reflection will confirm Australia has an interest in this mission being successful.
No regional grouping is more relevant to our security, to our prosperity.
At the Phnom Penh ASEAN summit last July, the organisation was challenged in settling on a common view about management of the dispute over territory in the South China Sea. Now it is working hard to resolve these differences. This should be achievable. We're talking about a code of conduct to handle disputes involving China, The Philippines and Vietnam – not about the disputes themselves, just a way of working through them – with settlement of the issues postponed for another time. Set aside, perhaps, to enable joint development of resources, something that has happened in three other cases in Southeast Asia.
Australia recognises ASEAN's centrality in the architecture of Asia. We are committed to its master plan on connectivity – for example, by involving ourselves in initiatives in the Greater Mekong subregion. ASEAN showed leadership in assessing the reforms that President Thein Sein has pursued in Burma: the ASEAN nations saw reforms as irreversible and led the rest of the world on engagement with Thein Sein. My initiatives in opening Burma to Australia are based on ASEAN policy.
Meanwhile, the biggest challenge for ASEAN nations is to avoid the middle-income trap. While their growth has been impressive, we do not want to see the trajectory flattened as institutional rigidities or shortfalls in governance cut in, denying some ASEAN nations rich-country status. On this challenge, ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan talked to me about Australia's relevance in this through education, technical assistance and advice on designing frameworks for investment. This engagement will be expedited if we pursue the path spelt out in the white paper, enlisting Australians in business, civil society and government with a deep involvement in Asia.
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