WITHOUT doubt, we will look back on 2020 as one of the most challenging years in our lifetimes. The pandemic has wreaked havoc with lives, livelihoods and our health, and kept many of us apart.
But we’ll also look back on it as a year that has in many ways brought us closer together.
Malaysia is already one of Australia’s closest partners in Southeast Asia. Our bilateral relationship has never been stronger, notwithstanding the impact of Covid-19 in 2020.
Australia’s relationship with Asean has similarly never been stronger.
Australia was Asean’s first dialogue partner and our strategic partnership is entering a new chapter, with agreement just reached for Asean and Australian leaders to meet annually starting next year.
Yet to respond to the pandemic effectively, we have had to find new ways to cooperate, support each other, promote economic growth and pursue a region that is peaceful, inclusive and resilient.
At the recent Asean meetings, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made clear Australia’s commitment to Southeast Asia, announcing important investments in the future of our partnership with Asean.
First and foremost, these investments will aid the region’s recovery from the pandemic.
Australia has already played a crucial role in rolling out medical equipment and direct support in Southeast Asia in response to Covid-19.
Now, a landmark new A$500mil (RM1.5bil) Australian investment will support access to safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines for the Indo-Pacific region, more than half of that for Southeast Asia.
This includes A$21mil (RM64.6mil) for the new Asean Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases to combat Covid-19 and prepare the region for future pandemics.
It also includes support for the Asean Comprehensive Recovery Framework first proposed by Malaysian Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin in June.
We’ll also provide A$24mil (RM73.9mil) to combat infectious diseases in the Indo-Pacific through the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
And we are working with individual Asean countries, including Malaysia, to identify how we can ensure access to safe and effective vaccines will be fair, equitable and affordable for all.
This was a key issue discussed by Foreign Ministers Marise Payne and Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein at the Annual Foreign Ministers Meeting on Dec 4, which follows on from my discussions on vaccine development and access with Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin.
And just this week, our Ambassador for Regional Health Security and the Secretary General of Mosti examined how Australia’s vaccine access initiative can be targeted to benefit Malaysia.
Australia is also focused on supporting economic recovery after Covid-19.
Access to a safe and effective vaccine will of course be a critical enabler of the recovery. So too will the resumption of travel between our countries.
In the case of Australia and Malaysia, our officials will have discussions on what will be needed to open our borders to one another as soon as it is safe to do so.
For Australia and Asean, the economic relationship is already very strong. Last year saw more than US$122bil (RM492.3bil) in two-way trade and, by the end of the year, total two-way investment stocks stood at over US$250bil (RM1.01tril) at the end of 2019.
But as we emerge from the pandemic, we must find more opportunities to expand our economic engagement and facilitate trade and investment.
The historic signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement will help to do just that by opening up new markets and economic opportunities and helping our businesses to grow, prosper and create new jobs.
To ensure RCEP is a success, Australia is spending A$46 million as part of a Regional Trade for Development Initiative to help Asean countries implement this and other trade commitments.
In parallel, we are investing A$70mil (RM215.3mil) to support infrastructure policy and regulatory reforms to ensure new infrastructure is sustainable, high-quality and delivers real economic and social benefits.
We’re also investing a further A$65mil (RM199.9mil) to support Asean countries in the ongoing development of their marine resources and ensure maritime domains are secure and prosperous.
All told, Australia’s new investments for economic recovery and security in Southeast Asia total over A$550mil (RM1.7bil), over and above our A$500mil (RM1.5bil) investment in vaccine access for the region.
All of this is in addition to existing investments and collaboration, including our substantial development assistance programs across much of Southeast Asia.
Australia strongly supports Asean, which sits at the heart of our region and at the centre of its most important institutions and will be pivotal to the region’s security and economic recovery.
We also strongly support Asean’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific – support that is grounded in a firm belief that a peaceful, inclusive, sovereign and resilient region is in all of our interests.
Australia and Asean are connected by common purpose. To ensure our people are healthy and educated. To ensure our people can earn a living, grow their businesses and support their families. To provide safety and security for our communities. And to recover and rebuild from Covid-19.
Malaysia plays a leading role in Asean and has helped spur its response to the pandemic.
The region’s priorities are our priorities, and we have a shared stake in each other’s recovery. Australia will be with Malaysia and Southeast Asia every step of the way.
Andrew Goledzinowski is the Australian High Commissioner to Malaysia. Follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/AusHCMalaysia