I acknowledge Vice Minister Du, thank you so much for being here this evening. I’m pleased that we had an opportunity to talk about the potential for the New Colombo Plan in China. Your presence here this evening is deeply appreciated.

Among the many special guests here this evening, may I acknowledge our new Ambassador to Beijing, Jan Adams - who has been in the job for all of three days when the Foreign Minister of Australia arrives! So to Jan, thank you for welcoming me to Beijing and to all her staff.

The Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Varghese, from Canberra is also here, so is the delegation from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to co-host the Foreign and Strategic Dialogue with Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

I acknowledge the representatives from the universities, the business community and the New Colombo Plan students who are here this evening. I thank Matthew Wiseman for so brilliantly articulating what the New Colombo Plan is all about and relating the very personal stories from the New Colombo Plan students.

I have had a very productive day here in Beijing. I have had a number of meetings with counterpart ministers and I’m pleased to say that the relationship between Australia and China has never been deeper, stronger or closer than it is today.

Our economic, trade and investment relationship is quite remarkable. China is our largest two-way trading partner. We have a high quality free trade agreement that is benefiting both our nations. In April, Australia will hold our second Australia Week in China, with the Australian delegation bringing literally hundreds and hundreds of business leaders from Australia to China to enhance our trade and investment ties.

There is also our comprehensive strategic partnership with China, which means that we work together to resolve some of the strategic challenges, not only in our region but globally.

We partner in many ways, including through supporting each other in our membership of the G20. I note that China will be hosting the G20 this year as Australia did in 2014.

Our defence cooperation is expanding with joint defence military exercises.

We’re partnering in development activities. For example, Australia and China have partnered with Papua New Guinea to deliver a malaria control program in PNG.

Our people-to-people links are at an unprecedented high. One million Chinese visitors came to Australia last year, the highest number ever.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will be visiting China in April and this will be an opportunity for him to showcase the areas of even deeper cooperation - in innovation, science and research, and across a broad range of areas where our two economies, our two nations, have common and mutual interests.

Education exchange has long been a cornerstone of this most special relationship.

Vice Minister Du spoke of the number of Chinese students who are studying in Australia and the number of Australian students who are studying in China.

And this is where the New Colombo Plan comes into focus.

I want to not only support young Australians to live and study and work in our region, but I want to inspire them to have a lifelong interest in countries in our region.

The idea of the New Colombo Plan came from the original Colombo Plan, which was established in 1951, whereby Australia offered places for students from the region in our universities, so that they could gain Australian qualifications and then go back to their own countries and be part of the development of their nations.

Those original Colombo Plan students from overseas lived in Australia, lived with our families, in our communities, got to know Australia and gained qualifications, and then when they went back home and were wonderful ambassadors for the relationship with Australia and their home countries.

Today those original Colombo Plan scholars are cabinet ministers, business leaders and community leaders and their understanding and love of Australia comes from their time living and studying in our country.

So that’s what I want to achieve with the New Colombo Plan - supporting young Australian students to live and study in the region, get to know their host country, learn the language, understand the people and build networks, connections and friendships that will hopefully last a lifetime.

It began in 2014 with a pilot program in four locations and 2015 was the first full-year rollout of the New Colombo Plan. There are 38 eligible countries in our region.

Not surprisingly, China has proven to be the most popular destination and 500 Australian students have studied and worked in China in 2015, and this year it will double. By the end of 2016 we believe that around 2000 Australian students will have been New Colombo Plan students in China.

Overall, in its first two years of operation the New Colombo Plan will have provided support to 10,000 Australian students to live and study in our region.

There are two aspects of the New Colombo Plan that sets it apart from other exchange programs. The first is the flexibility. We are able to accommodate students’ needs and requirements and they can undertake short, medium or long courses.

The second element is that of the work experience and internship and mentorship. The opportunity for our students to gain real-life experience in the workplace or in a work environment in the host country, and this is transformational.

The reason we have been able to establish the New Colombo Plan and achieve so much in such a short time has been as a result of extraordinary partnerships with the host governments and the Australian Government. In this instance I’d like to thank the Chinese Ministry of Education for being so accommodating, so understanding and so embracing of our New Colombo Plan concept.

The Chinese university sector has also deeply engaged from the outset and I want to thank each and every university, their staff and their administrators for ensuring that these universities can accommodate New Colombo Plan students.

Of course, the well-known, established Chinese universities are popular destinations, but I’m excited at the prospect of a network of regional universities in China and having our students staying not just in Beijing and Shanghai, but across China, visiting areas that students might not otherwise be able to gain places at the universities.

There are already about 1200 formal linkages between Australian and Chinese universities, but I think the New Colombo Plan will be able to see a great many more collaborations. Not just at the undergraduate level but in postgraduate and academic exchanges.

I want to acknowledge a number of companies and businesses who have become part of our internship and mentorship network. In particular, this evening VM Ware Shanghai, Austcham Beijing, NAB, ANZ, Macquarie Bank, QBE, Mastercard, Telstra, King and Wood Mallesons and DLA Piper.

And I’m delighted that one of China’s largest online retailers, JD.com, has agreed to take 60 interns under the New Colombo Plan.

KPMG is also part of our internship and mentorship network and I thank them for becoming involved in this most exciting initiative.

There are so many examples of the flexibility and innovative approaches to the New Colombo Plan. For example, National Australia Bank is offering internships to its Shanghai branch for students from Macquarie University, a partnership between NAB and Macquarie. Zhongguancun Science and Technology Park, likewise is offering opportunities to students from the University of New South Wales.

I encourage you to encourage others to become involved in the New Colombo Plan. It’s an opportunity for businesses and organisations and entities to meet with bright young Australians who have a deep interest in engaging in the region. They could be potential employees.

Of course, for the young Australians, this is an extraordinary opportunity for them to gain work experience and learn new skills, new insights, new perspectives, and come back to Australia with fresh thinking and a deep understanding of Australia’s place in our region.

This is far more than an individual education experience for a young Australian, as important as that may be. This is a signature foreign policy initiative of the Australian government, with support at the highest levels of our government.

I hope that it becomes a rite of passage for young Australian undergraduates to spend time living, studying and working in our region. I can think of no better investment than in our young people. For young Australians to be engaging in our region is surely what our future is all about. And, through their connection, through their engagement in the region, our relationships, country-to-country, will almost certainly endure.

So in launching our internship and mentorship network this evening as part of the New Colombo Plan I express the deep appreciation of the Australian Government to all those who are determined to ensure that this most special of initiatives is a grand success.

And as someone who was born in the year of the monkey, I wish you all the best in 2016. What an exciting year it will be!

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