Opening Statement

Mr Alexander Downer MP, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs


I welcome this opportunity to meet with my ASEAN counterparts and colleagues. Australia values greatly its close and long-standing relationship with ASEAN. The past two years have severely challenged the resolve of the ASEAN countries while also proving a testing time for Australia, but it has shown the genuine nature of our relationship with Asia. We welcome the encouraging signs of improvement in most East Asian economies, eg lower inflation and interest rates, but I would caution that recovery will need stable policies and a continued commitment to economic reform. Australia, for our part, will continue to provide substantial assistance, to address the social and economic impacts through bilateral, regional and multilateral measures. Total aid flows to East Asia will increase to $421 million in 1999-2000, an 11 per cent increase from 1997-98. Country program assistance to Indonesia will be increased by $6 million, with total aid flows projected to be $121 million. In the case of Thailand, aid flows will be around $26 million, 6 per cent more than last year.

In addition to bilateral responses, Australia has implemented a number of important regional initiatives. In November last year, the Prime Minister announced a three year, $50 million package of assistance for crisis-affected APEC developing economies as part of Australia’s Economic and Financial Management Initiative. In addition the Asia crisis fund was doubled to $12 million for the financial year 1999-2000, in recognition of its effectiveness in allowing flexible and prompt responses to key crisis issues.

While efforts to address the crisis have focused on enhancing economic governance and financial sector reform, we have also given considerable attention to alleviating the social impacts. The social costs of the crisis – on the unemployed, women, children and the environment – will continue for Some time.

The Australian Government has recognised the importance of a concerted and effective international response to the crisis. As most of you would be aware, I hosted a meeting of ministers and senior officials of both regional countries and donors in Sydney in March, to maintain the momentum for an effective international response and to discuss medium to longer term response measures.

A key outcome of the meeting was endorsement of Australia’s proposal for the establishment of an internet-based information exchange mechanism, known as the Asia Recovery Information Centre (ARIC). ARIC will assist governments of crisis-affected countries in managing the recovery process and restoring growth, and assist the donor community to identify emerging social and economic needs, thus improving coordination of efforts. Australia will allocate up to $3.2 (US$2) million to establish ARIC. ARIC will be based at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Manila. An Advisory Committee will provide policy direction and review ARIC’s performance. We have invited representatives of the ADB, World Bank, IMF, ASEAN and APEC Secretariats, UNDP and AusAID to participate in the committee.


Political Issues

In acknowledging that it has been a challenging period for ASEAN, we also must recognise the important and enduring role ASEAN has played in maintaining peace and stability in the region for over thirty years. Cambodia’s membership of ASEAN realises the founding fathers’ vision of a united ASEAN 10 by the year 2000. It is also a welcome recognition of Cambodia’s reintegration into the regional and international community. Further, the Indonesian election was an historical achievement which will benefit the wider region.

Australia welcomes the positive measures enumerated in the Hanoi Plan of Action, especially the renewed commitment to trade and investment liberalisation. The agenda set by the Hanoi Plan of Action shows that ASEAN is fully committed to the process of regional economic integration. At the same time, the Action Plan has also committed ASEAN to address the social impacts of the crisis through the Plan on Social Safety Nets. Australia supports ASEAN’s efforts in this area; it is essential that countries develop their own capacity to monitor and analyse the social impacts of the crisis and develop policy responses.


ASEAN-Australia Dialogue Relations

ASEAN-Australia relations are under-pinned by the high priority given by the Australian Government’s relations with Asia generally. We give priority to working closely with ASEAN countries at a bilateral level, as well as in ASEAN-wide forums, and broader regional forums such as APEC and the ARF.

Australia’s commitment to the AFTA/CER linkage, and a close working relationship with ASEAN remains strong. Australia will contribute $200,000 towards an AFTA-CER initiative to promote the development of effective competition and consumer protection regulatory regimes in ASEAN.

I am pleased to be able to confirm Australia’s intention to support another phase (phase IV) of the Australia-ASEAN Economic Cooperation Program (AAECP), to be renamed the ASEAN-Australia Development Cooperation Program (AADCP). The new name better reflects the program’s development focus. It is our expectation that this new phase will include a strong focus on assisting the new ASEANs to integrate, and enjoy the benefits of, the various ASEAN economic and development schemes and programs.

Australia is also committed to working cooperatively with ASEAN on cultural issues. Close cooperation exists with the ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information (COCI), evidenced by the good progress on the AusHeritage project to develop an ASEAN Regional Policy and Strategy for Cultural Heritage Management. My Department has contributed a significant amount to this project, along with ASEAN’s contribution of 45 per cent of the total budget. We welcome UNESCO’s commitment to cover the bulk of the project costs. Other ventures of productive collaboration include the recent approval by ASEAN-COCI of the ASEAN-Australia Film and Video Preservation Training Through Distance Education Project. It is also worth noting that at the 34th ASEAN-COCI meeting Australia was the only dialogue partner to commit substantially to funding co-operative activities for 1999-2000 and beyond.

The many diverse avenues we have established with ASEAN, in particular the AFTA-CER linkages for Australian and ASEAN business to advance trade and investment objectives, has reinforced our view to reinvigorate the ASEAN-Australian Forum(AAF). We believe that the Forum would be more constructive, for both sides, if we could focus our discussions on the major political, economic and security issues facing our region and their impact on ASEAN-Australia relations. The AAF should, we believe, evolve into an overview and coordinating body, to review developments in the ASEAN-Australia relationship, but not to work directly on detailed technical matters. We are not seeking to raise the level of ASEAN representation, but simply to ensure that ASEAN could be represented by officials able to exchange views freely on these issues. These suggestions on the future of the AAF are offered in the spirit of friendship and cooperation to help enliven and enhance the process which has been central to our relations with ASEAN.