This is my eighth PMC, I very much look forward to these meetings. New Zealand’s relationship with ASEAN is a central part of our engagement with South East Asia. Our links have been strong since ASEAN’s inception, and we anticipate this partnership will grow even closer in the new milllenum.

This year Brunei is our country coordinator. It is a delight to work together a second time in this role. And looking ahead we will also be delighted to work with Singapore where it takes over in the year 2000.

We will be hosting the 14th New Zealand/ASEAN Dialogue Session in Wellington in October. I’m hoping to see many familiar faces from ASEAN at that meeting. I look forward to constructive discussions spanning political, economic and development issues. There’s a lot happening in the region, and the Dialogue provides an invaluable opportunity for officials to sit down and discuss the details of our interaction.

Developments in ASEAN

It has been a momentous period for ASEAN. It is a year in which Laos and Myamnar have brought their voice to the table and assumed the responsibilities of membership. Depending on the outcome of the weekend elections in Cambodia, the ambition of an ASEAN 10 is much closer. We have provided four observers and helped fund the UN observer presence. This is a mark of our long commitment to regional peace and stability and our desire to see Cambodia achieve stable government, economic progress and regional integration.

Economic difficulties

The economic challenges of the past year have been enormous. Most of the ASEAN countries have been affected by the environmental and economic damage of both drought and haze. We too have suffered the effects of the El Nino drought. On the haze issue we have again provided funds for relief and prevention efforts. While rain has belped to alleviate the problem, it is vital to lessen man-made aggravation of the problem in future years.

Asia’s economic difficulties over the past year have brought home to New Zealanders, if they needed reminding, just how closely our fortunes are linked to Asia’s. We too have felt the impact and seen a decline in our dollar, GDP growth, exports and visitor numbers. We have had to cut back on some Government expenditure programmes.

I do not for a moment equate our situation with the severity of the impact on our friends in some ASEAN countries. We have followed with great concern the serious economic news coming out of the region. At the same time we are full of adimiration for the efforts being made to grapple with these problems and find a way forward.

The challenge for New Zealand is how – besides supporting the role of international financial institutions – we can help in a way that really makes a difference. We do not have the resources to make significant financial contributions. We are not a capital-exporting country.

So we have been trying to help in practical ways that draw on our experience in tackling our own economic crisis of the 1980s. One such area is public sector reform and it is one where our experience has been seen as valuable by our partners. We have been running programmes for senior Thai public sector managers and are discussing the possibility of arranging something similar with Indonesia.

The independence of our central bank and its role in fiscal and monetary policy is also of interest to our partners. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand is actively sharing its experience with ASEAN partners. The same is true of our Government auditors.

Some of you will know, from dealing with us in other organisations such as APEC, that New Zealand follows a very determined path when it comes to the international trading system. We have one of the more open markets in the world. I know the priority you place on boosting exports as a way out of the economic malaise. Our market may not be a large one, but it is certainly wide open to your exporters. You will be interested to know that our imports from Asia are up substantially at a time when our exports to the region are down. Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have all registered significant increases in their exports to New Zealand in the year to May.