Originally published in Advancing ASEAN in the Digital Age Book, 14 November 2017.


ASEAN and Australia – Strategic Partners in a Dynamic Region


We live in a time when the pace and scale of change are unprecedented in human history. The last two decades have been characterised by disruption and change, much of it driven by the technology of the internet.

Nowhere in the world has this pace of change been more apparent than in Southeast Asia. In less than two decades, ASEAN’s combined GDP has more than quadrupled, accompanied by rapid growth in consumer spending, urbanisation and internet penetration. Between 2012 and 2020, the ASEAN middle class will more than double, from 190 million to 400 million people. The cities of Southeast Asia are booming, with more than 90 million people expected to move to urban areas by 2030.

With 40 cities in ASEAN hosting populations of one million or more, and intra-ASEAN travelers making more than 100 million trips each year, countries in the region are more urbanised and connected to each other and the world beyond than ever before.

While the rapid integration of the region has brought about new economic growth and opportunities, it also demands greater practical cooperation on increasingly complex challenges – from the scourge of terrorism and violent extremism, to the urgent need to develop common standards to safeguard the future of digital trade.

ASEAN is an institution that has stood the test of time as the region’s strategic convener, shaping a more prosperous and secure environment for all of us.

Against this backdrop of rapid change and complex challenges, ASEAN has been a bulwark of stability and constancy for 50 years. In 2017, ASEAN is an institution that has stood the test of time as the region’s strategic convener, shaping a more prosperous and secure environment for all of us.

And in 2017, Australia’s partnership with ASEAN has come of age. In 1974, when Australia became ASEAN’s first dialogue partner, development assistance in the form of economic cooperation was the mainstay of our engagement. Contact between our peoples was limited. Trade was restricted by the protectionist policies and economic conditions of the day. And we did not yet have habits of cooperation on political and security issues.

How different the outlook is today. Taken as a group, ASEAN now represents around 15 percent of Australia’s total trade and is our third largest trading partner, after China and the European Union. In the last Australian census, 896,000 people claimed heritage from ASEAN nations. Behind those numbers is a story of constant and meaningful people-to-people contact. Australia welcomes more than 1.3 million visits from ASEAN countries each year, and in 2016 Australians made almost three million trips to ASEAN countries.

Incrementally over the decades, from the harrowing events of the 1970s – the Indochina refugee crisis and the Cambodian conflict – through to the end of the Cold War and beyond, we have developed a mature political dialogue. This was recognised by the elevation of our relationship to a strategic partnership in 2014, and by the agreement to hold biennial Leaders’ Summits, the first of which was held in Vientiane in 2016. Today, our partnership is embedded in a strong network of regional institutions, including the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus.

The ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in March 2018 will mark a major step forward in our partnership. It will build on our deep legacy of economic cooperation, political dialogue, and the natural interweaving of our people to establish a contemporary, outward-looking partnership for the rapidly changing world we live in.

As the first Australian Prime Minister to host all ASEAN Leaders in Australia, I see the potential of the ASEAN-Australia relationship to grow further still. The Special Summit will highlight three major opportunities: to strengthen our joint contribution to regional security and prosperity, to combat terrorism and violent extremism, and to secure greater opportunities for our people and businesses.

When Australia looks to safeguard its interests in a peaceful, secure and prosperous region, we naturally and increasingly look to ASEAN as an indispensable partner. Like ASEAN, Australia has stood for a region where might is not right and where inclusiveness is the norm. And, like ASEAN, Australia has worked to convene and strengthen organisations such as the East Asia Summit to help manage strategic risks. The Special Summit will open a new chapter in our dialogue, committing us to address challenges of common concern, like people-smuggling and human trafficking, maritime security and cyber security.

The rising threat of terrorism is a shared, transnational challenge our region must tackle head-on together. In September 2016, at the last ASEAN-Australia Summit in Vientiane, we agreed on a Joint Declaration for Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism, to ensure that we continue to respond effectively and deepen cooperation across the region. It is essential that we sustain this.

As terrorists adapt, so must we as a region to defeat them. The scale and links between terrorist groups mean that we must work together even more closely, sharing information and lessons learned, and cooperating to keep our citizens safe.

At the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit senior officials will convene to discuss how we can work together more effectively to combat this shared and rapidly evolving threat, including through policy and law enforcement responses.

Opening new markets and opportunities for businesses in ASEAN and Australia has long been our shared ambition. The 2015 Declaration of the ASEAN Economic Community sent a decisive message to the world that ASEAN is for open markets and against protectionism. The ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand FTA, still ASEAN’s most comprehensive trade agreement, was part of the inspiration for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – which also brings in China, Korea, Japan and India.

At the Special Summit, I want to bring business into the push for new growth in the trade and investment relationship. The objective of the CEO Forum that will precede the Special Summit is to drive better understanding of the business opportunities in our markets, and the steps we need to take collectively to secure those opportunities. I hope this will lead to more and better interaction and collaboration between our business leaders on such vital issues as digital transformation, the future of energy, and infrastructure.

Also preceding the Special Summit, a conference for Australian small and medium exporters will raise awareness of the opportunities for them within ASEAN; a reflection of my personal commitment to encouraging Australian businesses to seize the ASEAN opportunity.

I congratulate ASEAN on its 50th anniversary. Building on the enduring legacy of our partnership, Australia will continue to support ASEAN to shape a secure and prosperous region.

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About The Hon. Malcolm Turnbull


Malcolm Turnbull is the 29th Prime Minister of Australia. He was born in Sydney on the 24th of October 1954 and was educated at Vaucluse Public School and Sydney Grammar School. Following his graduation from Sydney University with a Bachelor of Arts/Laws he won a Rhodes Scholarship and completed a Bachelor of Civil Laws at Oxford. He has worked as a journalist and a barrister before moving into investment banking and establishing Turnbull & Partners before moving to become managing director of Goldman Sachs Australia. Elected on 9 October 2004 as the Member for Wentworth he has served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, Minister for the Environment and Water, Minister for Communications as well as Shadow Treasurer and Leader of the Opposition. He was elected the leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister on 14 September 2015 and was re-elected as Prime Minister of Australia at the Federal Election on 2 July 2016. Malcolm and Lucy continue to live in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, they have two children, Alex and Daisy, and three grandchildren, Jack, Isla and Alice.