THE HON. JULIE BISHOP reflects on Australia-ASEAN relations as both sides celebrate 43 years of constructive dialogue partnership.

On 8 August 1967, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations with the aim of promoting economic growth, social progress, cultural development, and promoting peace and stability throughout Southeast Asia.

Then Australian Minister for External Affairs, Sir Paul Hasluck, was among the first to welcome the news. Australia’s rapid recognition of the importance of ASEAN was no coincidence. It was as clear then as it is now that ASEAN’s unity and effectiveness is important to Australia’s stability, security and prosperity.

There is a good reason for the consistency of Australia’s approach to ASEAN over decades. It is grounded in the recognition that ASEAN countries are Australia’s nearest neighbours; their sea lanes are our sea lanes; their security challenges are our security challenges; and their prosperity helps drive our own.

Our relationship with ASEAN is longstanding — Australia became ASEAN’s first Dialogue Partner in 1974. In the past four years, our relationship with ASEAN has been elevated to the level of a Strategic Partnership. We have established biennial ASEAN-Australia Leaders’ Summits and a resident diplomatic mission to ASEAN in Jakarta.

As Minister for Foreign Affairs, I have made 22 visits to ASEAN member states, with several more already planned for 2017.

Next year, we will take our relationship to new heights when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull welcomes all 10 ASEAN leaders to Australia for the first time for an ASEAN-Australia Special Summit. This Summit represents an unprecedented opportunity for Australia and ASEAN to further strengthen our strategic and economic partnership.

One factor driving the increasingly close relationship between Australia and ASEAN is that our people-to-people relationships are becoming more extensive. Over 1.3 million Australian residents were born in ASEAN countries or have Southeast Asian ancestry.

In 2016, more than 90,000 ASEAN students were enrolled in Australian universities, including nearly 1000 studying under Australian Government scholarships. Many ASEAN alumni have forged careers in politics, business, academia and the arts while maintaining their close ties to Australia.

The flow of students runs both ways. In just four years, more than 7,700 New Colombo Plan scholars under the Government’s signature public diplomacy initiative have undertaken study across all 10 ASEAN member states. These young Australians are developing connections to Southeast Asia and creating a new generation of Asia-literate Australian professionals.

People-to-people links underpin a robust commercial relationship. As a whole, ASEAN was Australia’s third largest trading partner in 2016 while Australia was ASEAN’s sixth. In 2015, two-way trade amounted to more than A$90 billion and two-way investment totalled around A$227 billion. Australian businesses, from large companies such as Linfox and Blackmores to smaller start-ups, increasingly see the potential of the dynamic economies of Southeast Asia.

With its combined GDP trebling over the past 15 years and with many members among the fastest growing economies in the decade ahead, ASEAN’s economic influence will expand rapidly.

Its combined population of over 630 million means ASEAN has the world’s third largest labour force behind China and India. Its middle class of over 80 million households is expected to double by 2030, potentially providing an opportunity for much greater two-way trade.

ASEAN and Australia are leading the way in forging agreements to deepen regional economic integration for common benefit.

The 2015 declaration of an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is a resounding endorsement of the benefits of open and integrated economies. Australia is partnering with ASEAN to advance the AEC’s implementation, including to improve regional connectivity and to narrow the development gaps between ASEAN member states.

The ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement — the organisation’s most comprehensive trade agreement thus far — enables businesses to take advantage of the opportunities created by the AEC. The early conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will enhance the already considerable economic links between ASEAN and the six regional countries with which it has existing free trade agreements — a grouping with a combined GDP of around US$23 trillion and a population of over 3.5 billion.

Beyond trade, Australia recognises ASEAN’s indispensable role in helping the region meet its strategic challenges. Under ASEAN’s leadership, the East Asia Summit (EAS) has become the preeminent meeting for multilateral discussion of difficult issues.

The EAS allows all member states to advance their views and policies in a setting which encourages dialogue rather than conflict. Without these discussions, the prospect for misunderstandings would inevitably increase.

Importantly, ASEAN-hosted meetings allow member states and their partners to collectively advocate approaches consistent with a rules-based order and international law.

Economic growth has made ASEAN more prosperous and more stable. That has been the real success story of ASEAN — 50 years of peaceful relations among its member states.

ASEAN’s leadership is more important than ever, and its strength lies in its unity. In 2017, Australia will celebrate ASEAN’s remarkable achievements. Fifty years ago, few would have foreseen the success of the ASEAN project. Australia applauds ASEAN’s contribution to peace, stability and prosperity in our region.

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