Good afternoon and thank you to my co-chair, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for your warm comments.
I congratulate you again on your appointment as State Counsellor and Foreign Minister and we warmly welcome the smooth political transition that has taken place in your country. As I said to you earlier, I am very pleased that Australia played a small part in supporting the recent elections, to further strengthen Myanmar’s Union Election Commission’s technical capacity and indeed we fielded ten observer teams, including members of the Australian Parliament. I note that the Commission also participated in a visitor program for our own election this month, so Myanmar and Australia are very much partners in democracy.
It was in Nay Pyi Taw in November 2014 that Australia was elevated to an ASEAN Strategic Partner, and we appreciate Myanmar’s support as our ASEAN country coordinator and we look forward to continuing to work closely with you, Daw Suu, and your officials.
I am delighted to be back in Vientiane. I last visited two years ago. I thank our Lao hosts for the fine arrangements for our meeting. Let me express Australia’s strong support for Lao PDR as ASEAN Chair in this significant year.
2015 was a landmark year for ASEAN and Australia welcomes the establishment of the ASEAN Community. This integration milestone further highlights the transformation of a once-volatile region into one increasingly known for its prosperity and stability.
ASEAN will celebrate another very significant milestone next year with its 50th anniversary. It will be an opportunity to reflect on the crucial role ASEAN has played in preserving regional stability and promoting prosperity over the past half a century.
Ours is a partnership built on shared interests and enduring ties. As ASEAN’s longest-standing Dialogue Partner, with our relationship now in its 42nd year, Australia is deeply invested in your success.
We are living in an increasingly complex and dynamic region, as evidenced by developments in the South China Sea. ASEAN centrality and unity is vital for peace, security and stability in our neighbourhood. Indeed ASEAN was established in 1967 to preserve peace and stability in the region and through the rule of law and respect for justice.
We note the recent decision of the Tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the South China Sea, which gives clarity to the international law regarding maritime rights in these waters. Given this clarity, Australia encourages the Philippines and China to abide by the ruling, which is final and binding, and to re-engage to resolve their differences. How the outcome of the arbitration is handled is an important test for how ASEAN can help manage disputes peacefully.
Our Strategic Partnership provides a platform for jointly addressing the challenges facing the region. We have frank and constructive dialogues on the pressing issues in our neighbourhood, including maritime security, counter-terrorism, combating transnational crime, and people-smuggling and human trafficking. It is vital that these be continued and with effective cooperation.
We are committed to working with you to strengthen regional cooperation, particularly through the East Asia Summit, but also through the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus.
As a group, ASEAN is Australia’s second largest trading partner – and we are your eighth largest external trading partner. Bilateral trade was worth almost $100 billion in 2015. Our investment links continue to grow strongly – two way investment grew twelve per cent from 2014 to 2015 to over $227 billion.
This is an economic partnership of mutual benefit. The Protocol to Amend the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement has entered into force for eleven of the twelve parties, making it easier for businesses to make the most of what is a landmark, comprehensive Free Trade Agreement delivering real commercial benefits.
The success of this trade agreement has fed our mutual ambition for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Australia is aiming for an ambitious and credible RCEP outcome. That’s what our businesspeople and consumers want and expect, and it is incumbent on our governments to deliver it.
To reinforce this, and to support ASEAN’s own economic integration efforts, we continue to provide direct and tangible support to ASEAN’s regional economic integration agenda. I believe our programs deliver practical results. I am very pleased that we have been able to support the development of your priority plans for connectivity and consumer protection, while our economic partnership has also assisted a number of ASEAN Member States to put national competition laws and policies in place by 2015, meeting a commitment under the ASEAN Economic Community.
Beyond our support through the ASEAN Secretariat, we deliver a number of economic engagement initiatives focused on development of the region’s private sector.
In this vein, the Australian-supported $13.2 million Mekong Business Initiative has just launched the Mekong Angel Investor Network, which will connect ASEAN and international 'angel investors' to start-ups and entrepreneurs in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, providing capital in return for convertible debt or ownership equity.
We are also doing more to support ASEAN-Australia socio-cultural cooperation – including through our undeniably strong people-to-people links.
I am delighted that Australia’s New Colombo Plan was expanded to all ASEAN countries last year. By the end of this year, 10,000 young Australians would have studied, lived and worked in the Indo-Pacific region, and half of those students will be in ASEAN countries.
Australia welcomed 123,000 students from ASEAN countries last year, each of whom will build life-long connections to Australia.
Our tourism links are flourishing –nearly 1.2 million visitors from ASEAN countries to Australia last year and over 2.8 million Australians travelled to the ASEAN region in 2015.
Last September, I launched the Australia-ASEAN Council - representing a new facet of Australia’s engagement with the region. The Council is supporting a diverse range and I think exciting activities - from a partnership to build regional capacity in disaster resilience education, to an exchange program for female football coaches through a partnership with the ASEAN and Australian Football Federations.
Australia is proud to be ASEAN’s Strategic Partner; a substantial economic partner; a strong advocate of a peaceful, rules-based neighbourhood; and a highly engaged participant in ASEAN-led regional architecture. We have a profound interest in ASEAN’s continuing success and we are committed to expanding our relationship into new areas of cooperation for our mutual benefit.
Our ties will be strengthened further when the first Leaders’ Summit under our Strategic Partnership is held here in Vientiane in September.
This is a significant step. Prime Minister Turnbull is looking forward to a rich and constructive discussion with your leaders. The Summit is a chance to reflect on the successes of our partnership and to ensure we are positioned well for the future.
I look forward to our discussions here today.
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