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Asean ‘crucial for Australia’s economic, security interests’: officials

Southeast Asian countries offer enormous potential and opportunities, and the region is crucial for Australia’s economic and security interests, Australian officials told media from Asean countries.
Journalists from Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam recently visited Australia on the Asean International Media Visit Programme organised by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
The media trip showcased Australia’s engagement with Asean and reflected why the 10 member regional grouping matters for Australia.
Economically, Asean with a combined market of more than 600 consumers is crucial for Australia’s growth.
Two-way trade between Asean and Australia reached US$105 billion in 2017, exceeding Australia’s trade with its second and third largest trading partners, Japan and the United States, according to DFAT.
More than 12,000 Australian businesses from all over the country export products to Asean, exceeding the number of exporters to China, Australia’s largest trading partner.
Australia’s Assistant Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Mark Coulton, said not only Australia but also many major and emerging economies had identified Asean as the region of opportunities.
“What is interesting in the last decade or so is that a lot of the global economic focus is in the Asia-Pacific region and it’s very much becoming the centre,” he told Asean media.
Meanwhile, Australia remains an important trading partner of Asean, and Australia was Asean’s sixth largest source of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) among Dialogue Partners in 2017 with total inflow amounting to US$2.1 billion, according to the Asean Secretariat.
Education is a flagship area of Asean-Australia cooperation with over 150,000 international students enrolled in Australian schools in 2016.
A senior Australian government official said Southeast Asia has always been and will always be a crucial area for Australia for economic and security reasons.
Australia recognised the importance of engaging in the shaping of regional architecture through Asean-led mechanisms and meetings.
“We believe in a multipolar region where Asean centrality allows small- and medium-sized countries to play a role in decision-making,” the official said.
“Asean and the Asean-centred regional architecture help set the rules and norms for behaviour in the region.”
The official said Australia wants an open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific region where disputes are resolved peacefully according to international law. Australia wants trade, capital and ideas to flow freely.
As a medium-sized player in the Indo-Pacific region, Australia is set to enhance relations with Asean. Asean leaders have agreed to further discuss the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific or Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, envisaging Asean centrality as the underlying principle for promoting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.
“Asean is strategically important to Australia – it lies at the heart of the Indo-Pacific,” the official added.
Australia became Asean’s very first Dialogue Partner in 1974 and upgraded relations to a Strategic Partnership in 2014. In 2015, Australia and Asean agreed to commence biennial leaders’ summits.
Trade cooperation between both sides has been boosted by the Asean-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA) which was established on February 27, 2009.
With major economies including the world’s largest and second largest economies, the United States and China, having interests and engaged with Asean, observers noted there are competing pressures in the Asean region.
Some noted that Asean could become more attractive for foreign firms amid the ongoing trade war between the US and China as investors seek to avoid US tariffs.

By Souksakhone Vaenkeo
(Latest Update July 12, 2019)

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