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This op-Ed was first published in The Straits Times on 11 June 2021 

Australia and Southeast Asia – stronger together
The Hon Scott Morrison MP, Prime Minister of Australia 

Australia was one of the first countries to recognise Singapore’s independence more than half a century ago. We were also one of the first to support Southeast Asia to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

In the Philippines, the word is “Bayanihan”. In Indonesia, people call it “Persahabatan”. In Australia, we call it mateship.

Australia’s priority is getting vaccines flowing into Southeast Asia to limit the spread of the virus. 

As I announced last year, Australia will provide A$300 million for vaccines support to countries throughout Southeast Asia, and a further A$100 million to the Quad Vaccines Partnership with a focus on Southeast Asia. 

We’ve also committed A$21 million to help establish a new Asean Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases.

This sits alongside the A$130 million we’re contributing to the COVAX Facility’s fund for developing countries, which began delivering vaccines to Southeast Asia in February.

We know that economic recovery is a long path and Australia will be there with Southeast Asia every step of the way.

Beyond the pandemic, the Australian Government has committed over A$500 million in new support for the region’s economic recovery, on top of our existing A$1 billion annual spend to support Southeast Asia’s development.

Coming out of the pandemic, we want to grow our already substantial economic ties with Southeast Asia, which will create jobs in all our countries.

Taken as a whole, the collective economies of Asean are already Australia’s second largest trading partner.

We’re committed to regional trade agreements like the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) and the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership), and to forging exciting new bilateral arrangements, like our ambitious digital economy work with Singapore and other Southeast Asian partners.

We want to secure supply chains and support a free, rules-based trading system that allows our businesses to work together and invest with certainty.

And we are encouraging Australian businesses to explore new markets. That’s why last year we ratified a free trade agreement with Indonesia, and this year we will launch an Enhanced Economic Engagement Strategy with Vietnam.

We will work with Southeast Asia to meet and beat our climate change commitments through practical action. 

Last night, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and I announced a new A$30 million Australia-Singapore Low Emissions Technology Initiative. And with the support of Australian and global companies like Sun Cable and the Asian Renewable Energy Hub, we want to help Southeast Asia meet its growing energy needs sustainably with the world’s cheapest renewable energy and clean hydrogen.

At the same time, we know that our shared region – the Indo-Pacific – is the epicentre of renewed strategic competition.

Trends that undermine our region’s stability and prosperity have accelerated. The rules, norms and institutions that have underpinned the extraordinary growth of recent decades are under assault. Protectionism and harmful economic coercion is on the rise. Tensions over territorial claims are escalating. Disinformation and emerging technologies are being used to manipulate open societies.

Sovereign nations are being threatened and coerced, and cyber attacks – including by state-sponsored actors – are growing more frequent.

These are serious challenges, but we must not be overwhelmed by them. Instead, we need to respond in a deliberate and coordinated way. 

That means working towards shared principles and rules for the region. Building habits of dialogue and cooperation. Resolving disputes in accordance with international law and without the threat of force or coercion. Fostering open and rules-based markets while integrating our economies as we recover from COVID-19. Upholding the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight and ensuring the rights of smaller countries.

These principles are set out in Asean’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which Australia strongly supports. Australia was proud to be Asean’s first Dialogue Partner, with a shared vision for an open, inclusive and resilient region. And we’ve benefited enormously from Asean’s success. We will always work to be a trusted and responsive partner for Asean, offering practical support and devising solutions together.

Australia and the countries of Southeast Asia are strong, independent neighbours. We are friends. We are a community. Together, we will get through this time of change and challenge and be all the stronger for it. 

* Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited Singapore yesterday (10 June 2021) for the sixth Australia-Singapore Annual Leaders’ Meeting with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

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