Opening Statement
Mr Alexander Downer MP, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs

I welcome this opportunity to meet with my ASEAN counterparts and colleagues. Australia has la long and honourable record of engagement with ASEAN. We were ASEAN’s first dialogue partner in 1974 and our record in security and political cooperation, economic engagement and people-to-people links has been second to none. Our cooperation continues in our work together in Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), ASEAN Regional Forum, the development of the Mekong Basin and many other regional issues. It is this beneficial cooperation that demonstrates the value of the effort that has been put into relations between Australia and the countries of ASEAN.

Despite the difficulties confronting the region over the past year, Australia’s commitment and engagement with Asia, including our nearest neighbours in ASEAN, remains resolute. Australia committed to the region for the long term. A clear demonstration of this commitment is the contribution we have to all the IMF packages in the region. We are confident that the way forward lies with continued cooperation and partnership. Our future prosperity and security are interlinked. By working together through the challenges now before us, just as we have through periods of growth and prosperity, we will emerge even stronger and more resilient.

Australia is grateful to our ASEAN colleagues for accommodating our request to try a different format for our bilateral meeting this year. This bilateral meeting is very important to Australia and our aim is to make this exchange as free-flowing and constructive as possible. We are also following with interest recent discussion within ASEAN about the future focus of the Association. We congratulate you on your willingness to confront difficult issues and believe such self-examination will help ASEAN to emerge even stronger from recent difficulties. ASEAN’s willingness to confront wider regional problems will send an important message to the international community.

Economic Issues

While all of us have been affected by the fallout from the regional economic crisis, these affects have not been equal across countries. Nevertheless, we believe it is important that ASEAN countries respond to the crisis in a comprehensive and decisive manner that supports actions undertaken by each other. We consider that structural reform and trade liberalisations are the keys to long term recovery. At the same time, Australia recognises that the social costs of the crisis have been significant particularly for the most vulnerable in society and that reform efforts must take into account the particular characteristics and needs of individual countries. For this reason, Australia has implemented a range of development assistance measures aimed at supporting countries to address the social impact of the crisis, and to assist in the process of structural reform that is needed for economic recovery to take place.

Regional economic architecture, particularly APEC, has an important role to play in promoting regional solidarity and security. In contrast to the IMF, APEC is not in the front line in developing financial and reform packages for the economies most affected by the crisis. What APEC has done, however, is to declare its continued confidence in the strong economic fundamentals of the region and to press ahead with its own core business of freeing up trade and investment in the new circumstances. In this way, it plays a part in confirming to financial markets and business that sensible policy directions will continue to prevail despite the crisis. Specifically, that the region will continue with the market opening policies which have helped to underpin its dynamism in the past. Continued adherence to APEC principles and progress on Individual Action Plans will send the right signals to the markets on economic reform and ongoing liberalisation. As Australia has stated on a number of occasions, the strong regional architecture has-an important role to play in assisting efforts to resolve the economic crisis, and in helping prevent such problems from occurring again.

Political Issues

Regional security and stability have been one of ASEAN’s key achievements in its thirty year history. Threats to peace and stability – particularly nuclear testing by India and Pakistan in defiance of international non-proliferation norms – have serious implications for global and regional security and cannot be tolerated.

Australia’s response to the nuclear tests has been firm and unequivocal we oppose nuclear testing by any state anywhere. It is on this basis we have condemned India and Pakistan’s decision to conduct nuclear tests. We have called on both countries to do their utmost to mitigate the threat which their actions pose to the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime by implementing the requirements of Security Council Resolution 1172 without delay.

An important contribution to regional security and the global non-proliferation regime was the signature of the SEANWFZ Treaty in December 1996 by the ten countries of South East Asia. Australia welcomed this development. While we note that nuclear weapon states continue to hold reservations over some aspects of the Treaty and its Protocol, we hope that ASEAN and the nuclear weapon states will be able to reach agreement on the outstanding issues associated with the SEANWFZ Treaty as soon as possible.

We are all carefully events in Cambodia with great interest and concern. Along with other members of the international community, particularly ASEAN colleagues through the ASEAN/Friends of Cambodia grouping, we have continued to encourage the Cambodian government to work towards peace, stability and national reconciliation as envisaged under the terms of the Paris Peace Accords, and to honour its commitment to holding elections that are free, fair and credible. Now that elections have been held, we encourage ASEAN to continue its good work in integrating Cambodia into the region.

Transboundary haze pollution remains of serious concern in the region due to its detrimental impact on the health of millions of people. Australia has provided over A$2 million of assistance to the region in direct response to the fire and haze problems. This included support for the ASEAN Regional Haze Plan in addition to a targeted package of activities totalling over $500,000. At a bilateral level with Indonesia, Australia is developing a program of targeted training activities in haze-related areas such as forest management, land clearance and fire management. In the longer term, prevention is clearly the most appropriate strategy for dealing with the problem and Australia stands ready to assist in coordinated efforts that lessen the occurrence of large-scale bushfires.

HIV/AIDS is a serious national, regional and international issue as the disease does not respect country borders. Action taken on one side of a border will not be fully effective unless it takes into account the situation on the other side of the border. The Australian Government places a high priority on HIV/AIDS prevention and care activities. We are pleased to announce a new $5 million initiative over three years for HIV/AIDS activities in the Mekong Sub-region, as part of Australia’s aid program.

ASEAN-Australia Relations

Australia’s long standing relationship with ASEAN has developed in many diverse but important directions. We are committed to ensuring these linkages continue to develop despite current difficulties in the region.

The AFTA/CER linkage, which aims to reduce barriers to trade and investment, is of continuing importance in enhancing Australia and New Zealand economic relations with ASEAN countries.

Australia has been pleased to support the Australia-ASEAN Economic Cooperation Program (AAECP) over the last two decades. Since its inception in 1974 Australia has contributed some $142 million to the program. AAECP Phase III commenced in July 1994 and since then we have seen four major projects commence implementation and an increasing strong demand for the Linkages Stream component of the program. While Australia regards AAECP as having made a significant contribution to the relationship between ourselves and ASEAN in the past, it is clear that it is now only one strand in a much broader and maturing relationship which is based on close political cooperation and strong trade and investment flows.

Funds-provided for AAECP Phase III are now fully committed, due to recent unexpectedly high demand for the Linkages Stream of the program, and the decisions already made in consultation with ASEAN about the Projects Stream. I welcome ASEAN views about the nature of a future successor to the AAECP program.

Australia welcomes the launch of the ASEAN Foundation which took place in Jakarta on 14 July 1998. Its aim of bringing the ASEAN people closer together through scholarships and fellowships are particularly welcome in difficult times. We trust the Foundation will develop and flourish in the coming years. Australian experts have been working very closely with the ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information (ASEAN COCI) over recent years and have successfully completed several collaborative projects. These including a valuable initiative from AusHeritage to deploy Australian expertise to assist ASEAN to develop a cultural heritage strategy. ASEAN-COCI has now agreed in principle to advance this proposal to the feasability stage, subject to funding being secured.

Australia has a long, expert and productive involvement in the development of the Mekong region. We have extensive bilateral development programs in the basin, contributing nearly A$2 billion over the last twenty years. Australia looks forward to continuing its constructive involvement in Mekong basin development through participation in the ASEAN Mekong Basin Development Co-operation initiative.