Australia’s regional engagement must evolve so it can support its Southeast Asian partners to address the impacts of geostrategic competition and foster stability in the region, according to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson.
At an event hosted by the Asia Society Australia on Wednesday, Adamson noted that new challenges are emerging for Australia and the wider region.
“Australian leaders and policymakers are navigating a new and immensely challenging period in the Indo-Pacific,” she said.
“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.”
During visits and meetings with Southeast Asian counterparts over the past five years, Adamson has witnessed “a discernible change in the nature of the conversation”, which she has attributed, most often, to the changing strategic and economic environment.
She described strategic competition as “uncomfortable”, but argued that Australia must compete to preserve the liberal international order that supports stability and prosperity in the region.
Adamson noted that Australia’s partners in Southeast Asia have also been “grappling” with the impacts of geostrategic competition, including emerging threats such as cyber attacks.
“They’re dealing with a more assertive, ideological and transactional China, and they are looking to build positive connections with the new US administration,” she said.
“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.”
Australia’s regional engagement, as a result, must support a stable and prosperous neighbourhood.
“In charting a way forward, our efforts will build upon recovery, resilience, and relationships,” Adamson said.
“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.”
Southeast Asia is a “primary focus of Australian diplomatic effort”, with three of Australia’s 10 largest posts being in Southeast Asia, and almost 30% of overseas staff in Southeast Asia.
However, the secretary noted that Australia is struggling to sustain its understanding and experience of Southeast Asia, with recent data showing that Australian university students studying Southeast Asian languages has halved, from 2200 in 2001 to 1200 in 2019.
“We need to find ways to encourage Australian students to learn these languages and promote the business and career opportunities in our region,” she said.
To increase the study of Indonesian language in Australian schools, DFAT is currently working with the Australia Indonesia Institute to support the Asia Education Foundation. The department has also been working to “empower Australian communities, businesses and institutions to deepen their links into the region”, Adamson said.
The February 1 military coup in Myanmar — which has since led to the deaths of more than 700 people — is “one of the sharpest challenges our region faces”, Adamson said during her speech.
“[The situation is] a security, political and humanitarian crisis that is not only catastrophic for the people of Myanmar, but imperils regional stability and mires ASEAN in issues that divert attention from the priorities of economic recovery and strategic agency,” she said.
“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.”