The new Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between ASEAN and Australia sends a strong signal of Australia’s commitment to ASEAN and support for the grouping’s central role in the Indo-Pacific. Australia is focused on working with ASEAN to deliver substance under the CSP, including through a new ‘Australia for ASEAN’ package of scholarships, joint projects and a digital transformation and future skills initiative.
When Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne sat down for morning tea with ASEAN Ambassadors in Jakarta last month, there was an air of familiarity and ease — the familiarity of friends and neighbours.
This was the second time Minister Payne had met with the Ambassadors — who make up the Committee of Permanent Representatives, one of ASEAN’s key organs — in as many months. She had touched down in Jakarta fresh from discussions with many of their Foreign Ministers, in a visit to four of the ten ASEAN countries: Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia.
And she would go on to meet with ASEAN Secretary-General Dato Lim Jock Hoi at the organisation’s headquarters, building on their last discussion in September.
This regular face-to-face contact with ASEAN partners — during a year in which in-person diplomacy has been particularly challenging — speaks volumes about the priority ASEAN holds in Australia’s foreign policy.
For Australia, ASEAN sits at the very heart of the Indo-Pacific – geographically, politically and strategically. At a time of rapid change, a strong, resilient ASEAN at the centre of the affairs of the region is deeply in Australia’s interests.
The Foreign Minister’s November visit capped off a strong year for ASEAN-Australia relations. It followed the first annual ASEAN-Australia summit, which marked an important increase in the tempo of the Australian Prime Minister’s formal discussions with his ASEAN counterparts — to once every year.
And at that summit, ASEAN and Australia made the historic decision to enter into a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). This is a new step for ASEAN and a landmark in our relationship.
Implementing our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership
The CSP sends a strong signal of Australia’s commitment to ASEAN and its central role in the Indo-Pacific. But it is about much more than symbolism. It provides ASEAN and Australia with a framework for deepening our cooperation, and positions our partnership for the future.
Australia is now focused on implementing the CSP, on delivering real substance to the benefit of ASEAN, Australia and the region.
During her visit, Minister Payne listened carefully to ASEAN priorities. This will inform how we take forward the new Australia for ASEAN package announced by Prime Minister Morrison in support of the CSP.
Australia listens to and supports ASEAN’s priorities, through our tried and tested partnership approach. As an example of this, the Australia for ASEAN package will take forward concrete cooperation under the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.
Valued at A$154 million (US$110 million) over ten years, the package represents the largest-ever increase in Australia’s development cooperation program with the organisation.
An Australia for ASEAN Futures Initiative will fund projects jointly identified by ASEAN and Australia.
These will focus on issues like ensuring our shared health security as we recover from the pandemic, combatting transnational crime and terrorism, making sure workforces have the skills they need as economies evolve, ensuring energy security, protecting our oceans and building circular economies.
In addition, 100 new Australia for ASEAN scholarships will support emerging ASEAN leaders to study in Australia.
And an Australia for ASEAN Digital Transformation and Future Skills Initiative will support 350 vocational education and training scholarships, as well as technical assistance partnerships between Australian and ASEAN institutions, and a new skills policy dialogue.
Supporting ASEAN priorities
Just as important as what we do, is how we do it. Australia listens to and supports ASEAN’s priorities, through our tried and tested partnership approach.
As an example of this, the Australia for ASEAN package will take forward concrete cooperation under the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.
The Outlook, which is ASEAN’s vision for the region, provides a framework for cooperation with partners. Our new initiatives are deliberately aligned with this framework.
The Australia for ASEAN scholarships, for example, are structured to support study in fields under the priority areas of cooperation of the Outlook: maritime, connectivity, sustainable development goals and economic development.
Shared recovery from the pandemic
The CSP builds on almost half a century of cooperation, from the time when Australia became ASEAN’s first-ever Dialogue Partner in 1974.
And it builds on ASEAN and Australia’s increased cooperation during the pandemic, including the half billion-dollar investment in Southeast Asia’s recovery announced by Prime Minister Morrison last year and our regional Vaccine Access and Health Security Initiative.
During her travels in Southeast Asia, Foreign Minister Payne reinforced our ongoing commitment to support ASEAN partners’ pandemic responses.
With the delivery to Vietnam of more than 1.1 million vaccine doses this week, Australia has now provided more than 8 million vaccine doses to ASEAN members.
But our vaccine cooperation is about much more than doses. It is also providing end-to-end support, including training of healthcare workers, communications campaigns to combat vaccine hesitancy, and assistance with cold chain storage.
And we have partnered closely with Brunei, as ASEAN Chair, and other members on addressing mental health issues in the context of the pandemic.
Transparency, openness and communication
Transparency and open dialogue with our ASEAN friends are important to Australia. The Foreign Minister also used her meetings to discuss AUKUS, the new capability and technology sharing partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
AUKUS does not change Australia’s commitment to ASEAN centrality and the ASEAN-led architecture, nor our commitment to our nuclear non-proliferation obligations. It will make us a more capable partner for ASEAN countries, and will help support regional security and stability.
Every step of the way
As we look ahead to 2022, there is much uncertainty. We don’t know what challenges the Omicron variant will bring. The situation in Myanmar remains deeply troubling. Economic recoveries across the region remain nascent.
But our Southeast Asian partners can expect to see from Australia the same commitment to ASEAN that the Foreign Minister’s visits underscored. A commitment to true partnership, to listening to and supporting ASEAN’s priorities, and to providing options and balance.
As we celebrate our new status as Comprehensive Strategic Partners, our Southeast Asian friends and neighbours can continue to count on Australia.
Australia will be with ASEAN every step of the way.
Will Nankervis is Australia’s Ambassador to ASEAN. More recently, he was Assistant Secretary, Indo-Pacific Strategy and Regional Maritime Branch at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.