At its ASEAN Summit, the Australia government launches new initiatives to drive business investment and trade with Southeast Asia

After the 'high-fives' for a successful ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne celebrating 50 years of dialogue, what were the factors that actually shifted the dial from the past? In his Briefing MONTHLY for Asia Society Australia, editor and veteran Australian business journalist Greg Earl, nominates four - diplomatic capital and convening power, changing business outlook, a one million strong Southeast Asian diaspora, and geo-economic resilience - that have led to the Australian government putting new money on the line:


IT IS JUST OVER 30 years since I first watched Australia Inc being called up for national service in Southeast Asia by a weighty report, an enthusiastic prime minister and a sense of being passed by.

A lot of water has passed under the Australian-funded bridges on the Mekong since then as the power and financial balance has shifted away from Australia towards the then six, but soon to be eleven, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members.  But some things don’t change. The fathers of five of the ten men (and they were all men) at last week’s ASEAN Australia Summit in Melbourne once ruled their countries.

So, the Anthony Albanese government is only the latest government to discover that Australia’s security and prosperity in Asia, and perhaps beyond, passes through the diverse cultural and political geography of these countries. And it involves dealing with whipsaw change like digitisation and apparent regression to norm like Joko Widodo putting his son into the Indonesian vice-presidency.

"The children of Australia’s one million strong Southeast Asian diaspora now populate the sessions at these gatherings"

But last week’s gathering revealed some striking changes. Fifty years of formal relations with ASEAN has given Australia valuable diplomatic capital. Universities are in the vanguard of the new Australia Inc investment interest in the region. The children of the country’s one million strong Southeast Asian diaspora now populate the sessions at these gatherings. And the geopolitics of national economic resilience mean the government is putting its balance sheet to work to underwrite a A$2 billion investment promotion fund.

Invested: Australia’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040 author Nicholas Moore has used his report to try to straddle this changed zeitgeist throughout the Summit in a way that perhaps offers new pathways. With 23 of his 75 recommendations now addressed in various ways, he has a good strike rate. And the erstwhile investment banker now says the government has a clear role in setting a framework for investment in Asia. 

See the Summit outcomes here and the Melbourne Declaration here.

We have been here before and then lost interest for a range of reasons. But it is possible that climate change has provided the much-sought secret sauce for a new economic complementarity where resources and skills can be pooled via the diplomatic trust built up at these gatherings to deal with a shared environmental and economic dilemma. And that’s a dilemma which unresolved could create even bigger security challenges than the rise of China.

Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone of current ASEAN Chair, Laos, with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne

BUSINESS: mixed outlook

Australian businesses based in Southeast Asia say their profit outlook is in line with expectations or better than expected but they face operational challenges, mainly due to cash flow difficulties, logistical problems, and political uncertainties.

AustCham ASEAN's members survey, Australian Business in ASEAN Survey 2023-2024, released at the Summit provides an interesting insight into the debate about stagnant Australian investment in the region by revealing that only 8% of respondents had set up in the past two years. On the other hand, 40% had been established for 20 years.

The survey also has some mixed findings about attitudes to operating in Southeast Asia as the Moore Report recommendations are being implemented. About two thirds of respondents said ASEAN was a priority and their head offices understood the region. But there is a distinct uptick in negativity about the region as well with 22% saying it was not a priority compared with 4% in 2022. And 24% of respondents say ASEAN experience is not valued in their wider business, which is up from 10% in 2022.

Meanwhile, Vietnam continues its status over the past few years of these surveys as the favourite with 42% of respondents already operating there and 19% planning to expand there. But the Philippines is the big improver with only 28% of respondents there but 18% planning to step up there.

EDUCATION: English major

Southeast Asian universities are moving forward with drawing on Australian expertise to develop their use of English as a medium of instruction (EMI) as a result of discussions on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit.

ASEAN University Network executive director Choltis Dhirathiti used meetings with universities in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth along with participation in the Summit to develop a long-term plan for improving English language teaching in his more than 200 members.  In the first steps Western Sydney University will run workshops online and then onsite later this year in Ho Chi Minh City, followed by a Macquarie University onsite workshop, also in HCMC, alongside another AUN event.

Choltis says there is growing demand for English language instruction across Southeast Asian universities to meet labour market needs, attract foreign students from neighbouring countries, and service exchange students from outside the region who want international standard credits for their studies. 

“Parents want to encourage English study to open up job opportunities. The challenge is the universities offer English programs to attract students but their capability to deliver EMI is sometimes questionable,” he said in an interview.

He says Australian universities can help resolve this challenge for his member institutions because they have so much experience with foreign students, they are geographically close to Southeast Asia, and they have experience with developing English language teaching centres.

DIPLOMACY: watch, learn, engage

A new study of the ASEAN relationship has scored early wins for two of its recommendations that Australia should establish an ASEAN-Australia Centre and also help Timor Leste settle into the regional group. It has also backed support for innovations on climate change and the digital economy, and to develop better paths for long-term youth cooperation.

The study by academics from Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Cambodia says that after five decades of formal relations, Australia needs to be conscious of finding new models of engagement that will help sustain a peaceful and prosperous region into the future.  “Australia, perhaps more than some others, has been prepared to watch, learn and then engage in ways that have built a significant set of relationships and trust across Southeast,” says the study commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and published by the University of Tasmania.

Amid the broader debate about whether Australia should actually join ASEAN or abandon it due to its slow-moving diplomatic culture, the report argues that the “steady, incremental evolution” of Australia’s cooperation with the region through the ASEAN institution has proved to be an effective strategy for both sides. And amid some Australian oscillation over whether to focus on individual country relationships or the ASEAN institution, the report says the way Australia has maintained strong bilateral ties has contributed to its increasing range of activities with ASEAN itself.

Despite celebrating a successful 50 years, the report says the ASEAN-Australia relationship faces risks over how consistent Australia’s focus on this near neighbourhood will be; whether ASEAN can remain effectively unified; and how Australia should participate in ASEAN’s management of great power rivalry in the region.

Australia's new ASEAN Champions

To ensure "government and business work in tandem to deepen regional economic engagement", the Australian Government announced the appointment of  the following 10 senior, private-sector 'Business Champions' who will facilitate greater commercial links between Australia and Southeast Asia:

Brunei:        Pristine Pacific Australia executive director Nur Rahman

Cambodia:  MGA Insurance Brokers executive chairman John George

Indonesia:   Western Sydney University chancellor Jennifer Westacott

Laos:           AgCoTech chairman Charles Olsson

Malaysia:    Lendlease CEO Tony Lombardo


Philippines: Macquarie chief executive Shemara Wikramanayake

Singapore:  ANZ chief executive Shayne Elliott

Timor:         East Timor Trading Group chairman Sakib Awan

Thailand:    Linfox chairman Peter Fox

Vietnam:     Aurecon chief operating officer Louise Adams

Australia's new ASEAN Agenda

Investment: A$2 billion Southeast Asia Investment Finance Facility run by Export Finance Australia will support trade and investment, especially in clean energy and infrastructure. Partnerships for Infrastructure initiative extended.

Engagement: An ASEAN-Australia Centre to drive engagement and greater Southeast Asia cultural literacy in Australia.

Education: 75 new Aus4ASEAN scholarships co-funded by universities and 55 emerging leader fellowships for Australian education.

Business: Ten Business Champions to improve public and private sector links into the region. (Listed below) New Landing Pads in Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City to boost technology exports and digital transformation. First Asia Business Exchange mission to Singapore and Malaysia in April focusing on energy transition.

Climate: Energy cooperation under the Aus4ASEAN Futures Initiative to enhance regional energy policy and planning. Includes support for the ASEAN Centre for Energy and the establishment of an ASEAN Centre for Climate Change in Brunei.

Visas: Business Visitor Visa extended from three to five years. New Frequent Traveller stream providing 10-year visa for eligible countries.

Water:  A$64 million to enhance maritime partnerships in line with regional country needs. New phase of Mekong-Australia Partnership in water security, climate change and transnational crime.

Timor: English language training to help Timor-Leste join ASEAN.


SourcesBriefing MONTHLY, AustCham ASEAN, and Austrade