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Speech to the Australia-Malaysia Free Trade Agreement Conference dinner by the minister for Foreign Affairs: Melbourne: 10 march 2005.



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Speech by

The Minister for Foreign Affairs The Hon Alexander Downer MP

at the

Australia-Malaysia Free Trade Agreement Conference

Dinner

Melbourne, 10 March 2005

(check against delivery)

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Introduction

Thank you [MC - TBC]

Can I say what a great pleasure it is to join you this evening for the Australia-Malaysia Free Trade Agreement Conference dinner.

We very much appreciate the excellent work of the APEC Studies Centre in making this conference possible.

Conferences such as this provide timely opportunities to have in-depth discussions on important policy issues.

This morning Mr Deady (First Assistant Secretary, Trade Development Division, DFAT) opened the conference with remarks on the Australia-Malaysia trade and economic agenda…

…and how an FTA could play an important role in further building that.

This evening I would like to make some remarks on the wider bilateral relationship…

…looking at the strength and vitality of our bilateral links and the agenda for expanded cooperation across the board.

Let there be no mistake, the bilateral relationship is in very good shape…

…with decades of close cooperation offering a strong basis for future growth.

And, while bilateral links are strong, Australia and Malaysia also have crucial current and future roles as partners in the region…

…partners helping to build practical, accessible cooperation to help address challenges and opportunities of our times.

A Strong and Abiding Bilateral Relationship

As I indicated earlier this evening when launching the latest in DFAT’s Documents on Australian Foreign Policy series Australia and the Formation of Malaysia (1961-1966), Australia has long-standing and abiding links with Malaysia.

The 1960s were a complex and difficult period in the region.

The assistance we gave Malaysia was important at that time in history - and through it we shared in the process that saw the birth of Malaysia.

But it also has enormous contemporary resonance.

So much so that Australian (and other foreign) service personnel who assisted at that time are to be honoured by the Malaysian Government for their contribution - with a process currently underway to determine recipients.

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Similarly, the Colombo Plan has united Australia historically with many countries in South East Asia.

And important among those has been Malaysia.

From the 1950s through to the 1980s, and in the decades since as education links have extended well beyond the Colombo Plan, it is estimated that nearly 200,000 Malaysians have become alumni of Australian educational institutions.

Today, members of the alumni network are active throughout our official, business and cultural networks - from government ministers, to officials, to company owners, investors, academics, teachers, artists and musicians.

Trade and economic links also have a strong underpinning - for nearly 20 years now, since 1986, Australia and Malaysia have held formal trade and economic talks through the Joint Trade Committee process.

Since 1996, the Joint Trade Committee has been held at ministerial level, allowing for focused high-level discussion on key trade policy and economic cooperation issues.

Reflecting the increasing sophistication of our commercial links, this forum has evolved into a forward-looking cooperative mechanism to identify issues of commercial interest to the business community of both our countries.

Indeed, it was at the last meeting of the JTC that Trade Ministers agreed to parallel scoping studies on a possible bilateral FTA.

Alongside this are the two active business councils - the Australia-Malaysia Business Council and the Malaysia-Australia Business Council…

…both of which have been working to build business links since 1986 - and are represented at this conference.

Our defence links through the Five Power Defence Arrangements (involving both our countries, along with Singapore, UK and New Zealand) are already 34 years old, with an equally mature bilateral program of defence cooperation alongside this.

And recent events have shown just how relevant and useful these linkages are.

At the earliest stages of the response to the tsunami disaster, Australian defence forces - with the ready agreement of Malaysian authorities - were able to utilise Butterworth airbase as a staging point for their relief efforts in Aceh.

Ladies and gentlemen

These are just a few elements of the rich history to the bilateral relationship.

They are worthy and weighty achievements - and they have helped bring us to the excellent position we are in today…

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…a position where we have a strong foundation and know one another as reliable partners…

…partners not afraid to speak their minds, as anyone might expect - and should accept - of two sovereign nations…

…and partners who, over time, have dealt with a great many issues of mutual interest and concern in their bilateral relationship.

Opportunities To Further Expand Links

Last year when I visited Malaysia I came away with a very strong sense that the opportunity lay before our countries to take the next steps on a great many issues of importance…

…from trade to security…

…from economic cooperation to regional cooperation…

…and from developing linkages between our two peoples to developing further the links between our two governments.

That is why at the time of my visit, Foreign Minister Syed Hamid and I agreed that it would be appropriate to undertake more frequent high-level visits to one another’s countries…

…that we would now meet more often, to discuss strategic and foreign policy issues.

Since my visit last year we have seen a healthy flow of high-level ‘traffic’…

…covering Natural Resources and the Environment, Health, Tourism, Agriculture, Higher Education, and links between our Attorneys-General, to name just a few.

And the Government is very much looking forward to welcoming Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi to Australia early next month.

As I said earlier, we have for many years enjoyed sustained and productive bilateral exchanges on defence and defence training related issues, through the Malaysia-Australia Joint Defence Program, as well as through the FPDA.

These links are longstanding, but we have worked hard with Malaysia bilaterally and jointly with our other partners in the FPDA to ensure these linkages remain relevant and dynamic in this complex and challenging era we face.

The FPDA has been looking closely at how it can best contribute to efforts to address non traditional threats such as international terrorism.

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Bilaterally, I would venture that the defence links enjoyed between our two countries are among the very strongest and most technically sophisticated in our immediate region.

For my part, I am very pleased that we have been able to widen our bilateral cooperation on security-related issues to also address non-traditional threats such as terrorism and transnational crimes like people smuggling.

In August 2002 we signed a bilateral MOU with Malaysia on cooperation to combat terrorism - one of our first in the region.

Today Australia has a total of ten such arrangements.

These play an integral part in our efforts to build regional cooperation and coordination against the menace of international terrorism that threatens our region.

Last year I visited the South-East Asia Regional Centre on Counter-Terrorism in Kuala Lumpur.

This has been a welcome initiative by Malaysia and the United States - and one that Australia has been pleased to contribute to through training on counter-terrorism issues.

We look forward to further cooperation with the Centre in future.

We also welcome Malaysia’s active involvement in implementing the outcomes of the 2004 Bali Regional Ministerial Meeting on Counter-Terrorism.

These activities complement our very strong bilateral cooperation with Malaysia on money laundering, document fraud, and law enforcement.

Law enforcement, as we know from our efforts to bring to justice terrorist suspects, is a crucial tool for countering terrorism and other transnational crimes.

We are also hopeful that officials from Malaysia and Australia will soon hold the inaugural meeting of the Senior Officials’ Security Dialogue - an initiative that Syed Hamid and I agreed last year would be the appropriate next step given the mature and diverse links we have on security-related issues.

On the trade and economic front, the discussion of a possible FTA is an important - and major - initiative in the context of the wider bilateral relationship.

We both know that our economic and trade links are in good shape - in 2004, Malaysia was Australia’s ninth largest trading partner (goods and services).

We also know the investment relationship is not as strong as we would both prefer - with Malaysian direct investment in Australia more than 12 times that of Australian FDI in Malaysia.

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But - as outlined in the conference sessions today and in my department’s recent report Malaysia: An Economy Transformed - we both have a shared desire to see trade and investment grow…

…to make our trade and economic links even more productive.

Through consideration of an FTA - and through thorough and comprehensive work on parallel scoping studies now nearing finalisation - we are therefore pursuing a potentially important means of helping to strengthen our commercial links.

A possible step that could help build further our merchandise trade…

…as well as key areas of cooperation and trade in the services sector - particularly education, legal and other professional services…

…and bolster the way we trade and invest with one another.

As those of you who have heard me speak on Malaysia before will know, I am a great believer in the importance of building links between our communities and societies, and particularly the role education plays in this.

I am also keen to look for new initiatives that will add to the array of links we have established over previous decades.

For this reason I announced last year my intention to establish an Australia-Malaysia Institute, to work with friends in Malaysia and Australia on projects and ventures that will expand bilateral links yet further.

My Department is making the necessary preparations for its formal launch in the near future.

And Partners in the Region

There are many things Australia and Malaysia have done, are doing and will do in the future to build and strengthen our bilateral linkages.

We also recognise the importance of working together effectively as a region…

…cooperating, coordinating and taking steps - to address major problems and issues that confront us, as well as to embrace the many opportunities before us to build security and prosperity for the region.

As I noted earlier, a recent but tragic event - the 26 December Tsunami - has demonstrated this.

Australia and Malaysia both responded quickly, providing relief to affected areas - with Malaysia’s own shores directly impacted by the waves, with resulting fatalities.

I conveyed my sympathies to those who were affected by the tsunami in Malaysia through the Malaysian Foreign Minister.

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Malaysia has provided assistance via provision of Defence personnel and equipment, medical teams, through NGOs and is an active player in efforts among regional countries to establish a tsunami early warning system.

Ladies and gentlemen

I have already spoken of the importance of building bilateral and regional cooperation on counter-terrorism.

Malaysia also shares a common resolve to stamp out the significant threat that people smugglers continue to pose to our region…

…and is a strong supporter of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime.

Equally, we are all aware of the need for a robust counter-proliferation framework in the region…

…recognising - as Australia and Malaysia do - that there is no room for complacency.

Australia will continue to work with regional partners, including Malaysia, to achieve this goal.

The regional conference I hosted in Sydney in November last year focusing on increased cooperation against the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism, was one element of our increasing efforts in this field.

We look forward to expanding such cooperation.

In addition to the security agenda, we are working on cooperation that reinforces the peace and stability of our region in a variety of fruitful ways.

An area of particular interest to me is building understanding between the faiths in our region.

Last year Indonesia and Australia co-sponsored an interfaith dialogue, bringing together the diverse faiths of our region.

And I have been very interested in the initiatives of Malaysia in this regard…

…particularly its Islam Hadhari initiative which looks at the important role of mainstream Islam in the current era.

Australia and Malaysia also have many shared interests and aims with regard to regional forums.

Australia supports the regional developing architecture that is open and inclusive…

…and which allows for practical cooperation in areas of mutual interest.

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Australia and Malaysia are foundation members of APEC and work co-operatively in the forum.

We are both committed to the forum’s trade and investment liberalisation and facilitation agenda…

…and we are working cooperatively on APEC capacity-building initiatives, recently co-hosting a workshop on corporate governance in Kuala Lumpur.

ASEAN is another important regional institution with which Australia has longstanding and productive links.

The historic ASEAN Australia New Zealand summit in Laos in 2004 set the scene for further cooperation, including an agreement to negotiate an FTA.

We will continue to build on these links as opportunities arise.

In this connection, Malaysia and Australia also have significant shared interests in the ASEAN Regional Forum - as the region's pre-eminent forum for dialogue on regional security issues of common concern.

Conclusion

Though just a snapshot of the depth of Australia-Malaysia relationship, I trust my remarks have left you all in no doubt as to the great potential for us to do yet more together.

As leaders of industry, we recognise the important role you play in developing and strengthening commercial links between Australia and Malaysia.

For business, for our governments and for all interested observers and analysts, the next steps on a possible FTA will be a significant focus in the period immediately ahead.

Certainly I view this coming period with great excitement, opportunity and interest.

In closing, let me once again thank the APEC Studies Centre for their support in making this important conference possible.

And thank the many participants and contributors who have ensured discussions of such a vigour and quality.

Thank you.