Keynote Address to the Maritime Cooperation Forum - ASEAN-Australia Special Summit 2024 - Melbourne, Victoria - 4/03/2024

04 March 2024



Thank you.

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are gathered today - the Wurundjeri Woiwurrung and Bunurong Wurung peoples of the Kulin Nation - and pay my respect to Elders, past and present.

I acknowledge Laos, this year’s ASEAN Chair, and Australia’s ASEAN country coordinator.

I want to thank our friends from Laos for your guidance and support as we prepared for this Special Summit.

I also acknowledge Philippines Foreign Secretary Manalo.

I am honoured to be speaking alongside you today.

Just as we were honoured to welcome President Marcos to Canberra last week to deliver an address to the Australian Parliament.

The Philippines and Australia share a long friendship and partnership.

And the formal elevation of our ties to a Strategic Partnership, announced by Prime Minister Albanese and President Marcos last year, is a reflection not only of our already deep ties, but the enormous potential to grow our relationship even further.

The Philippines is of course a founding member of ASEAN.

When ASEAN was still in its infancy some fifty years ago, our visionary Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, recognised ASEAN was already central to managing the region’s challenges – and he could see that it would only become more central.

So he enthusiastically pursued engagement with ASEAN, and soon Australia became the first non-member to establish formal relations, when Prime Minister Whitlam signed Australia up as ASEAN’s first dialogue partner.

Prime Minister Whitlam knew that while much of our history was in Europe, our home and our future are in our region.

He recognised the role Southeast Asia would play in Australia’s destiny, and in the destiny of the world.

In turn, Whitlam saw Australia as “a true participant in the destiny of the region”.

And – as always, thinking about the future – he said, “There can be no turning back from this commitment.”

Indeed, he has been proven right.

Because that early engagement soon paved the way toward an annual ASEAN-Australia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, which I have had the privilege of participating in.

And our engagement has grown into a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between ASEAN and Australia – the formalisation of Australia’s permanent commitment to ASEAN centrality.

The formalisation of a truth Australia doesn’t just acknowledge, we embrace: we share a region, and we share a future.
We are bound by the geography that fate has chosen for us, and we are strengthened by the partnership we choose for ourselves.

Our nations and peoples are enriched as we trade together.

Our nations and peoples all benefit from the peace, stability and security we build together.

We all benefit as each of us succeeds and thrives.

Our belief in shared success underpins Australia’s commitment to increased economic partnership.

At the ASEAN summits in Jakarta last September, our Prime Minister launched Invested: Australia’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040.

This strategy, crafted by one of our most successful business leaders, Nicholas Moore, maps opportunities for trade and investment – how Australian and Southeast Asian business and government can work together to boost our economic engagement and build shared prosperity.

At the business track of this week’s Special Summit, we will discuss with one hundred CEOs and hundreds of business enterprises how we can turn that strategy into action, and substantially boost two-way trade and investment to all our benefit.

Shared prosperity is an incentive to maintain peace, yet it is not enough to guarantee peace.

The stakes are clear.

We know that a major conflict in our region would be devastating to our communities and economies, as the terrible conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine have shown.

So we all have a responsibility to shape the region we want to share: peaceful, stable and prosperous.

A region in balance.

Where each country can pursue its own aspirations.

Where no country dominates, and no country is dominated.

Maintaining this character is a continuous process.

It requires us all to nurture and protect agreed rules, uphold international law, prevent conflict and build strategic trust.

This is more important than ever with the region’s character under challenge.

President Marcos said to the Australian Parliament last week:

“Geopolitical polarities and strategic competitions threaten our hard-won peace, even as we remain beset by unresolved inequities and inequalities within and amongst nations”.

We see this in many ways.

We see claims and actions that are inconsistent with international law, particularly the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); the legal order for the seas and oceans.

We face destabilising, provocative and coercive actions, including unsafe conduct at sea and in the air and militarisation of disputed features.

We know that military power is expanding, but measures to constrain military conflict are not – and there are few concrete mechanisms for averting it.

These factors give rise to the most confronting circumstances in our region in decades.

Australia welcomes the December statement by ASEAN Foreign Ministers, which expressed concerns about developments that threaten regional peace and security in the maritime sphere.

That Statement reiterated the need for dialogue, restraint and the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, particularly UNCLOS.

And the need for building trust and confidence – which requires transparency and restraint.

And the importance of regular dialogue between China and the United States.

Australia supports this approach and we play our part in advocating for peace.

Since I became Foreign Minister, I have consistently reiterated US calls for open lines of communication with China and said it was in all of our interests for those overtures to be met.

We welcome the resumption of leader-level and military-level dialogue between the United States and China.
These are important steps on the path towards stability that the region has called for.

We must also commit to preventive architecture to increase resilience and reduce the risk of conflict through misunderstanding or miscalculation.

This is not just about the great powers. Australia listened carefully to Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when he said last year:

“This rivalry affects every country and region in the world…And the risk of accidents and miscalculation is ever present, especially in dangerous hotspots like the Taiwan Strait. This worries Asian countries a lot. We are close to ground zero.”

This situation requires all of us to shape habits of cooperation that sustain the character of our region.

To insist differences are managed through dialogue, not force.

To insist that communication never be withheld as a punishment or offered as a reward.

We want to support ASEAN Member States to ensure, collectively, we all have the practical tools we need to be able to rapidly and effectively deescalate tensions and crises.

In January, Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia co-hosted an ASEAN Track 2 workshop on Conflict Prevention and the ASEAN-led Regional Architecture where academics from all ASEAN Member States and partners put forward creative and practical recommendations to enhance ASEAN’s conflict prevention capacity.

And we are heartened by the extensive work being taken forward by many member states, such as the recent agreements between the Philippines and Vietnam on maritime cooperation, and on preventing and managing incidents.

These investments in diplomacy are all contributing to build coalitions, foster assurance, reduce tensions and contribute to strategic balance.

Alongside these efforts to reassure, reducing the risk of conflict also requires deterrence.

Australia is transparently investing in a capable military, defence industry and partnerships to continue to be a reliable security partner for the region.

Our longstanding defence partnerships in the region, including with ASEAN member states, build not only interoperability, but friendships and understanding.

Together, we show the high costs for anyone seeking to provoke conflict.

We are an active member of ASEAN’s Defence architecture, including through the ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Group on Maritime Security.

Because the ASEAN Maritime Outlook and ASEAN Outlook on the Indo Pacific are right to recognise that the waters of Southeast Asia are among the most strategic maritime domains in the world.

The maritime domain is at the heart of our shared interests and our shared prosperity.

And so we welcome ASEAN’s first joint maritime military exercise – ASEAN Solidarity Exercise 2023 – which demonstrates its capacity for collective action and mutual support.

The countries of our region rely on oceans, seas and rivers for livelihoods and commerce, including free and open sea lanes in the South China Sea.

The ASEAN Charter and the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia both set norms for the region, and for our approach to preventive diplomacy and conflict prevention – including in the maritime space.

Australia is working with ASEAN to increase resilience to coercion, and to ensure waterways that serve us all remain open and accessible.

Which is why I am pleased to announce we will commit a further $64 million over the next four years, including $40 million in new funding, to enhance Australia’s Southeast Asia Maritime Partnerships.

This will expand our maritime cooperation and contribute to security, prosperity and the management of maritime domains within the region.

I welcome recent comments from Indonesian President Widodo, who said:

“We also have the responsibility to lower the tension, to melt the ice, to create space for dialogue, to bridge the differences."

Australia supports efforts to use norms, rules and principles to enhance maritime stability.

We welcome efforts by Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines to delimit their maritime boundaries in accordance with UNCLOS.

As a longstanding and trusted maritime partner for ASEAN and its members, Australia has delivered Law of the Sea training across ASEAN and its member states and co-hosted ASEAN workshops on maritime issues and on conflict prevention.

Last week, President Marcos and Prime Minister Albanese reinforced our commitment to conduct Maritime Cooperative Activities in support of regional security and stability.

We also signed a Memorandum of Understanding to enhance maritime cooperation in the region.

We will continue to work with the region to protect and secure maritime and riverine resources and environments - whether to map coral reefs, prevent illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing or safeguard freshwater resources from climate change in the Mekong.

I am also pleased to announce a further $222.5 million continuing our long-term commitment to support resilience in the Mekong subregion.

A second phase of the Mekong-Australia Partnership will build on our existing partnerships to invest in water security, climate change resilience, combatting transnational crime, and strengthening subregional leadership.

What happens in the South China Sea, in the Taiwan Strait, in the Mekong subregion, across the Indo-Pacific, affects us all.

Australia will always seek our security within the security of our region.

We recognise ASEAN centrality as key to the region’s stability and security, and we are committed to supporting ASEAN’s leadership.

We recognise the strength of ASEAN’s collective voice – which resonates throughout the region when it speaks on its view of the importance of sovereignty and rules.

While our region comprises different political systems, we share a common interest in maintaining open and transparent communication.

These habits of communication, these norms of cooperation underpin the character of our region.

Never underestimate the capacity of norms to underpin the character of a region.

And ASEAN’s role in enabling and buttressing those norms.

And it is a character which we wish to preserve, free from coercion or the threat of force.

For all these reasons, I am pleased, with my friend Enrique, to open this Maritime Cooperation Forum today.

It is an opportunity for Australia and for ASEAN, for officials and academics, to advance our shared economic, security and environmental interests in a stable maritime sphere and develop new ideas to support ASEAN’s maritime vision.

All states, big and small, have a stake in these issues and must be part of their solution.

Our challenges are vast.

I encourage participants to be bold.

As all our governments must be bold.

Because nothing less than the peace and prosperity of our region is at stake.

Thank you.


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Authorised by Senator the Hon Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia.