Australia announces $126m support for Asean, seeks upgrade in ties

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaking from Canberra during the virtual Asean-Australia Summit on Oct 27, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday (Oct 27) announced a A$124 million (S$126 million) package supporting cooperation with Asean on security, climate and health efforts, as Canberra pushes for ties with the regional bloc to be upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership.

Speaking on the second of three days of virtual meetings between Asean leaders and those of their key partners from the region, Mr Morrison added that the growth of Asean's 10 member states underpins regional stability and Australia's prosperity.

He told his counterparts at the Asean-Australia Summit that a comprehensive strategic partnership between both parties would be "more than just a label".

"We want our cooperation to reach new heights," Mr Morrison added. "We will back it with substance that positions our partnership to address complex challenges in the future."

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore agrees in principle with Australia's proposal to elevate relations with Asean, and encourages continued discussions on the matter.

PM Lee added that he is grateful for Australia's steadfast commitment to post-pandemic recovery efforts in the region, through its Vaccine Access and Health Security Initiative and Partnerships for Recovery policy.

Mr Morrison said Australia has shared almost four million vaccine doses with the region and expects to share another 10 million at least by the middle of next year.

PM Lee also said both sides could work to leverage opportunities in a growing global digital economy, noting that Australia has strongly supported the Asean Smart Cities Network through its own Smart Cities Initiative and Smart Cities Trust Fund.

They should also uphold Asean centrality, he added, saying: "Asean and Australia share similar strategic regional outlooks".

The Australian PM also assured his Asean counterparts that the new three-way security partnership between his country, Britain and the United States, known as Aukus, does not change Canberra's commitment to the region or to nuclear non-proliferation.

The pact will supply Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines, and has divided sentiment among Asean leaders over its potential to spark an arms race and escalate tensions between the US, its allies and an increasingly assertive China.

"Aukus does not change Australia's commitment to Asean or the Asean outlook on the Indo-Pacific. It reinforces it. It reinforces the backing that we have for an Asean-led regional architecture," said Mr Morrison.

"Aukus adds to our network of partnerships that support regional stability and security."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke during the second of three days of virtual meetings between Asean leaders and those of their key partners from the region. PHOTO: MCI

PM Lee noted that Singapore welcomes new regional architecture formulations that support Asean centrality, deepen economic integration, and promote a stable and secure Asia-Pacific region and a rules-based order.

"We welcome Australia's assurance that its Aukus partnership with the United States and United Kingdom will be consistent with these criteria," he said.

Turning his attention to Myanmar - which has hogged headlines with its no-show at this week's Asean meetings - PM Lee reiterated Singapore's concerns and disappointment over the ongoing crisis and lack of resolution.

He called for the release of Australian national Sean Turnell, a Macquarie University professor and adviser to deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Both, along with President Win Myint, who has been detained since a February coup that ousted Ms Suu Kyi's government and ignited violent, deadly protests.

PM Lee thanked Australia for pledging A$5 million to the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre).

"We also welcome Australia's willingness to engage in constructive dialogue in support of the people of Myanmar and the country's democratic transition," he said.

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