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Australian senior diplomat says SE Asia “most acutely engages Australia’s national interests” compared to rest of the world

Australia’s most senior diplomat Frances Adamson has declared Southeast Asia (along with the Pacific) to be the part of the world “that most acutely engages Australia’s national interests” in a back-to-basics speech which has only underlined how the Myanmar crisis challenges Australia’s international outlook.

In a week when the China relationship got worse, the Afghan withdrawal raised questions about overreach, and Australia’s climate change record came under new pressure, the Department of Foreign Affairs secretary said Southeast Asia now also faced a crucial five years. “What will ultimately matter most in these coming years, is the ability of our region to find the right balance between competing powers and in the face of unsettling trends,” she said.

In the past year the government has outlined about $500 million in new general aid and at least $400 million in COVID support to the region of eleven countries (including Timor Leste), underlining its renewed priority.

But as the Myanmar crisis has raised questions about the credibility of ASEAN and about splits in regional unity, Adamson tentatively sketched out two quite distinct policy approaches to dealing with a group of countries becoming potentially more fractious as they become more important to Australia’s China-plus economic and security strategy.

She said study of regional languages had almost halved over the past two decades and the government needed to find ways to encourage more understanding of Southeast Asia because it was “a national asset and crucial sovereign capability”.

Meanwhile, despite the strong focus in recent years on the role of the ASEAN institution in broader regional economic and diplomatic architecture, Adamson said that DFAT had been working to strengthen bilateral relationships with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore (Comprehensive Strategic Partners); Thailand and Vietnam (Strategic Partners); and the Philippines (Comprehensive Partner). She pointed out that this had mainly happened in various ways in just the last year and “possibly hasn’t got as much attention as it deserves.”

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