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Leaders on Asia Address, Asia Society

News, speeches and media

Speech by Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson

Thanks very much indeed Shayne [Elliott, ANZ Chief Executive Officer] and thank you to ANZ for hosting.

It really is good to be back in a room. I like real, I also like virtual, and am conscious that a number of dedicated Asia Society members are joining us virtually too, so it’s great to be able to do this in this way.

Let me also acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we’re meeting today, and pay my respects to their elders, past and emerging.

Thank you to the Asia Society for bringing us together.

As Philipp [Ivanov, Asia Society Chief Executive Officer] said to me on the way up, we’ve been talking about doing this for a long time. I always knew I would, and I think he always knew I would too, but it’s great actually to be doing it. And Stuart [Fuller, Asia Society Chair], really good to see you in the Chair role as well.

Can I just say what an impressive role the Asia Society has played. What an impressive job it has done over the last year in keeping the dialogue on Australia and our region alive and enriching it.

In addition to you Philipp, I want to acknowledge my dear colleague Richard Maude. DFAT and the Asia Society work so closely together that we even send you, from time to time, our very, very best people. I still have the feeling of my right arm having been sawed off. 

I also want to acknowledge Andrew Cumpston, who is DFAT’s State Director here in Melbourne too, as well as members of the consular corps.

DFAT of course has been an enthusiastic partner, and I think at last count 16 Australian Heads of Mission have participated in virtual Asia Society events and webinars over the past year.

We’ve all had to learn new ways of working this year — even think-tanks and diplomats.

In my years of public service, I have to say I’ve not encountered such a rapid rate of change in policy and our strategic, and indeed operational, environment.

When I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade — actually it was not an ‘and Trade’ then in 1985 — things were very different.

Then, for example, Australian diplomats were overwhelmingly male.

In the last five years, I’m very pleased to say the number of female heads of mission has nearly doubled. We’re up to about 43 per cent of the total, including, and I want to draw attention to this because it is significant, the Foreign Minister’s announcement last week of Penny Williams’ appointment as our first female ambassador to Indonesia.

Women now represent half of our senior executive service, and we’re a more diverse foreign service. 

I was fortunate to join at a time though when Australia’s global engagement and influence was growing.

Our country was opening up to the world, and, later, with Gareth Evans as Foreign Minister, we were keen to make it a better place. 

One thing, though, was clear to me then as it is now — that is, the centrality and vital importance of our immediate region.

My first real job after training was working on the ASEAN economies, and they’ve certainly gone from strength to strength.

We need to remember, though, that the economic and geo-political growth of the Indo-Pacific that has transformed the world over the last three decades, has taken place alongside changes in Australia’s domestic policy settings.

When Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were reforming Australia’s economy, it seems like a long time ago now, but the USSR was losing its influence in this region.

When the Howard Government was leading Australia’s response to the East Asian Financial Crisis, regional demography began to exert its influence on regional economics and strategic weight.

As Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard supported Australia through the Global Financial Crisis, China was accelerating its integration into global markets and trade.

As the Abbott and Turnbull Governments led Australia through a period of great technological change, cracks were emerging in the international rules-based order.

And as the Morrison Government steers Australia through the pandemic, the United States and China are engaged in a geostrategic competition, impacting all elements of global policy.

Through it all, the future and fortunes of Australians have been inextricably linked to the Indo-Pacific region.

Every prime minister and minister I have had the pleasure of working with has understood this clearly.

Governments from both sides of politics have anchored Australian foreign policy in our region.

They’ve invested in building deep and lasting relationships with their counterparts, and they’ve ensured Australia is a consistent and reliable partner for the countries in our region.

The voice, presence and commitment of successive Australian Governments has been to our, and our region’s, benefit.

We were, for example, the first country to be invited to become a dialogue partner for ASEAN in 1974. And, almost fifty years later, in 2020, we’ve continued to deepen those partnerships by securing a dedicated annual summit with ASEAN.

Today, Australian leaders and policy makers are navigating a new and immensely challenging period in the Indo-Pacific.

Geostrategic competition between major powers has many dimensions, but it is focused increasingly on the stability and character of the regional order in the Indo-Pacific.

Pressure on rules, norms and institutions is more acute, and tensions over territorial claims are escalating.

The deployment of new threats like cyber attacks and foreign interference is growing in frequency and sophistication.

And, of course, COVID-19 has shown that Australia is only as healthy, strong and prosperous as our neighbourhood.

Today I’d like to talk about a part of the Indo-Pacific — Southeast Asia –which is absolutely central to its future.

Australian diplomacy — the prosecution of Australian interests internationally by Australians, as distinct from legacy Empire arrangements — was born out of World War II. 

Since then, Southeast Asia has been a constant priority for Australia’s foreign and strategic policy practitioners.

It has been front-of-mind for DFAT and its partners in government, and it will always be so. 

The reasons and rationale have evolved, but the centrality and persistence of our focus has not. 

When we began building our diplomatic networks in the 1940s and 50s, Southeast Asian capitals were among the first to host permanent Australian representation. 

Today, our 17 posts across 11 Southeast Asian countries continue to reflect that presence and attention. 

And there is depth, as well as breadth. 

Three of our ten largest posts are in Southeast Asia.

And almost 30 per cent of our overseas staff are in Southeast Asia.

That Southeast Asia is a primary focus of Australian diplomatic effort is testament to the fact that the security and prosperity of this region underpins our own. 

Since World War II we’ve seen — and been part of — a remarkable transformation in the region, from despair and conflict, to optimism, prosperity and openness. 

The region’s entrenched habits of cooperation have also earned ASEAN the role of convenor for the wider Indo-Pacific. 

This is an extraordinary achievement for our neighbours, and a great benefit to our own prosperity and strategic circumstances.   

Australia’s presence and agency throughout this journey have helped us build enduring networks and partnerships.

Diplomatic achievements like Tom Critchley’s UN Good Offices Commission role in Indonesia in the 1940s, Australia’s support for the formation of Malaysia in the 1960s, and the Cambodia Peace Process in the 1980s and 90s, are just some examples.

Multilaterally, as the first dialogue partner for ASEAN, and as a founding member of APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, we closely collaborated with Southeast Asian partners, earning a place at the table where we can and do work collectively on setting regional norms.    

Australia’s trade negotiators have worked for decades with their Southeast Asian counterparts to deliver benchmark Free Trade Agreements.

First bilaterally with Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, then regionally with AANZFTA, and now RCEP — the world’s largest free trade agreement.   

Through it all, we’ve developed deep connections between our trade negotiators, that will be further bolstered by a $46 million investment in a ‘Regional Trade for Development Initiative’. 

This initiative will guide Southeast Asian partners in implementing RCEP and AANZFTA commitments, and in doing so, will ensure these agreements maximise the economic benefits for us all.

Of course, DFAT is not alone in this endeavour.

Our work builds on the relationships between our defence forces, our border, immigration and customs agencies, and police and security officials, as well as the work of central bankers, Treasury officials, humanitarian and disaster specialists, the TGA, Austrac, and others.

And of course, there is a mighty contribution made by think tanks and the business community.

This is also a region from where so many Australians have come or called home. From the Colombo Plan of the 1950s and 60s, through to successive waves of migration, Southeast Asian diaspora have enriched the character of modern Australia. 

The bottom line is this: alongside the Pacific, Southeast Asia is the region that most acutely engages Australia’s national interests. 

This is our neighbourhood, and we have a direct stake in its peace, security and stability.

Over the last five years that I’ve accompanied the Prime Minister and ministers on visits and in meetings — and over the last 12 months in virtual meetings — with Southeast Asian counterparts, I’ve noticed a discernible change in the nature of the conversation.

At times, this has reflected a shift in the dimensions of our engagement, such as new impetus in the economic relationship, or evolving threats in the security sphere. 

But more often, it has reflected the changing strategic and economic environment we share.

Like Australia, our partners in Southeast Asia are grappling with the impacts of geostrategic competition, and seeking a settling point that does not diminish their voice or agency in the region.

While strategic competition is uncomfortable, in Australia’s view it’s vital we compete to preserve the liberal international order that has underpinned decades of stability and prosperity in the region.

Our partners are also navigating the changing dynamics of their own bilateral relationships.

They are dealing with a more assertive, ideological and transactional China, and they are looking to build positive connections with the new US Administration.

Our partners are positioning for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and dealing with the challenges that presents, including the dislocation of low-skilled workers in an age of artificial intelligence and automation.   

And our partners are facing new threats — from foreign interference, to cyber-attacks and other intrusions upon sovereignty. 

Against this backdrop, Australia’s regional engagement must evolve to support the stable and prosperous neighbourhood we need.

In charting a way forward, our efforts will build upon recovery, resilience and relationships.

Our first priority is recovery from COVID-19

COVID-19 has hit Southeast Asia hard.  

While Vietnam has bounced back economically, output in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand remains five per cent below pre-pandemic levels.1

The World Bank estimates that tens of millions of people will fall back into poverty across East Asia and the Pacific because of COVID-19. 

It’s a tough outlook and there’s little doubt the slow return of tourism will hamper economic activity.

This matters deeply to Australia. 

Collectively, the ASEAN economies are equivalent to our second largest trading partner.

As Foreign Minister Payne has said:

“Just as the region’s emergence has assisted Australia’s prosperity, how the Indo-Pacific responds to, and recovers from, COVID-19 will shape the trajectory of our own economic recovery.”2

When the pandemic hit, Australia rapidly reshaped our development program.   

In just over three months, the Government redirected $840 million worth of aid to support economic recovery, health security and stability in the Indo-Pacific as part of our Partnerships for Recovery strategy.

Getting vaccines to our region is a core part of our recovery plan.

Around $300 million will fund the provision of vaccines to nine ODA-eligible countries in Southeast Asia.

A further $21 million will help establish a new ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases.

Australia has committed an additional $100 million as part of a Vaccine Partnership with Quad partners, which aims to provide over one billion vaccines to the Indo-Pacific by 2022.

This is alongside our $80 million contribution to the COVAX Facility’s fund for developing countries, which began delivering vaccines in February.

Our support extends beyond vaccines though.

In his annual meeting with ASEAN leaders last November, Prime Minister Morrison announced an additional $500 million package of economic and security measures to support Southeast Asia’s recovery. 

When combined with our ongoing programs and a $1.5 billion loan to Indonesia for budgetary support, this is our most significant investment in Southeast Asia since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.        

Our second focus is our commitment to the region’s resilience.

The new $232 million Mekong-Australia Partnership is a flagship example.

We’re providing scholarships and training to build the capacity of the Mekong subregion’s primary asset — its people.

We’re sharing our technical knowledge to empower communities to make trade and economic decisions.

We’re supporting sustainable and quality infrastructure — the backbone of economies.

And we’re working with partners on environmental sustainability, climate change, water security, and marine pollution. 

Our third focus is on building stronger relationships.

We’ve engaged heavily in strengthening our regional architecture.  

Unifying regional architecture provides its constituent countries with greater resilience, strategic autonomy and security than they can often achieve individually.

As the Prime Minister has said, we support ASEAN centrality, but also ASEAN cohesion and agency.

Our support for the EAS, for ASEAN’s own Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, and our successful advocacy to secure annual ASEAN-Australia Summits are evidence of our commitment to enhanced regional dialogue, grounded in ASEAN centrality.

As the Prime Minister told his ASEAN counterparts last November:

“It goes to what Australia brings to ASEAN, a constructive approach, options, balance and deep friendship. This is what we do as neighbours and as strategic partners.”3

We’re also ensuring our work in other forums, such as the Quad, sends a positive signal to Southeast Asia of our support for an open, sovereign, inclusive and resilient region, as well as our commitment to advancing practical cooperation that addresses the region’s most pressing challenges.

And the Vaccines Partnership I mentioned is just one example. 

We’ve also invested in strengthening our bilateral relationships, and that’s something that has been done principally over the last 12 months, and possibly hasn’t got as much attention as it deserves.

But we now have Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships with Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore; Strategic Partnerships with Vietnam and Thailand; and a Comprehensive Partnership with the Philippines. 

These formal partnerships, with agreed work agendas, send a strong, positive signal of our shared commitment to joint action on regional and bilateral priorities. 

With Malaysia, for example, our two Prime Ministers have committed to working together on issues as diverse as the digital economy, maritime security and health.

We’re also advocating for our wider allies and partners to strengthen their engagement in Southeast Asia. 

A region anchored by strong leadership from the United States is absolutely in Australia’s national interests, and we join our partners in welcoming the positive engagement of the Biden Administration.

We’re also working with some of our other partners in Southeast Asia, including Japan, South Korea, and India. 

Finally, I want to speak about Australia’s support for human rights and democracy across Southeast Asia.  

We have been an advocate of good governance and free speech and have worked extensively in support of civil society.   

We have not shied from difficult conversations with partner governments when we have concerns.

And we have used our close partnerships and longstanding presence to exercise leverage and pursue accountability. 

Where the human rights of people are undermined or violated in our region, Australia will continue to voice our concerns.

Today, we do that most strongly in Myanmar — one of the sharpest challenges our region faces.

A security, political and humanitarian crisis that is not only catastrophic for the people of Myanmar but imperils regional stability and enmires ASEAN in issues that divert attention from the priorities of economic recovery and strategic agency.

We’re engaging with our international partners to respond and doing what we can to support the people of Myanmar through our development program, without in any way conferring legitimacy on the military authorities.  

I’ve spoken today about how Australia projects its voice and positive agenda in Southeast Asia, but as important is how Australia fosters understanding and engagement of our region at home. 

Australians’ understanding and experience of Southeast Asia is a national asset and crucial sovereign capability. 

It is also one we need to continue to sustain and grow.

Recent data indicates a drop from around 2,200 Australian university students studying Southeast Asian languages in 2001, to 1,200 in 2019.4

We need to find ways to encourage Australian students to learn these languages, and promote the business and career opportunities in our region.

Which is why DFAT is working with the Australia-Indonesia Institute to support the Asia Education Foundation to develop a national rationale for the study of Indonesian language in Australian schools.

We’re also working to empower Australian communities, businesses and institutions to deepen their links into the region.

COVID border closures have disrupted many programs, including migration, international education and tourism, and of course obviously the New Colombo Plan.

These closures have been necessary and effective, but we have some ground to make up to ensure Australia remains a preferred destination. 

Similarly, we’re enhancing our engagement with Australian business to help them seize opportunities in the region.

Diversifying into new markets is never easy, but as the joint report by Asia Society and the Business Council of Australia, released this month, said:

“Australia is exceptionally well positioned…to expand trade and investment partnerships…and build and grow new businesses and supply chains [into] the region.”5

And I really want to compliment both the Asia Society and the BCA. It's a very strong piece of work.

I want to acknowledge more widely, and big shout outs today of course to the Asia Society, but to other Australian think tanks also, in building greater understanding, knowledge and appreciation of Southeast Asia in Australia and in fostering dialogue with think tanks in our region.

We will remain the closest of partners to that end.

I’d like to leave you with one final thought.

The next five years will be crucial for Southeast Asia. 

Charting a recovery from COVID, and setting our communities and economies on a more resilient trajectory, are immense challenges.

But what will ultimately matter most in these coming years, is the ability of our region to find the right balance between competing powers and in the face of unsettling trends.

A balance in which no one country dominates, and all countries — large and small — forge their own futures, cooperate in their common interest, and are resilient to coercion.

A regional order that supports economic integration based on international rules and norms.

And an order that preserves the openness, stability and resilience of our region.

In strengthening our Southeast Asian partnerships now, we are positioning Australia to support this order.

And that is one of the most important investments we can make in a more secure, prosperous and peaceful future for all Australians.

Thank you.


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