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Tuesday, 9 October 1984
Page: 1456

Senator SIBRAA —On behalf of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, I present a report on Australia and ASEAN-Challenges and Opportunities, together with the minutes of proceedings of the Committee and the transcript of evidence. I seek leave to move a motion relating to the report.

Leave granted.

Senator SIBRAA —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

It is now 17 years since the Association of South East Asian Nations-ASEAN-was established by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Brunei became the sixth member in January of this year. It is now ten years since Australia began its formal relationship with ASEAN. The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence considered this year an appropriate time to conduct a detailed review and evaluation of Australia-ASEAN relations. ASEAN has become a most important focus for Australian foreign relations. ASEAN is central to the security of the South East Asian region and therefore of major significance for Australia's own security. The economically dynamic ASEAN region presents significant opportunities for Australia's economy. A number of socio-economic issues of major current concern to Australia are associated with our relations with ASEAN-for example, immigration and refugee policies, and policies towards overseas students in Australia's education system.

The report first examines ASEAN's evolution and development of economic and political co- operation among its members. It concludes that ASEAN has made a very substantial contribution to regional security and therefore to Australia's own security, a contribution greater than generally realised. The spirit of trust and confidence and improved stability developed through ASEAN co-operation has also enhanced the growth prospects of its members' economies. The report goes on to consider a range of issues in Australia's relations with the ASEAN region. It assesses recent Australian and ASEAN policies towards regional security, especially the ongoing conflict over Cambodia. The report discusses Australia's recent approaches towards these issues in the context of Australia's policies since 1975. Australia, like ASEAN, is concerned about the degree of instability and heightened major power competition posed by the Cambodian conflict. The report argues that Australia sees its efforts to explore bases for dialogue as being pursued in the context of a close relationship with ASEAN. As a state located close to the South East Asian region, Australia is especially concerned at problems of insecurity and major power competition in the whole region. Immigration and refugee issues continue to be of major importance in the relationship and the report details recent trends in both areas. The refugee situation in the region at present is substantially less serious than it was in 1978-79, but major problems persist for the ASEAN members. The report argues that Australian policies towards Indo-Chinese refugees have been an area of extensive co-operation in Australia-ASEAN relations and that continuation of this co-operation is in our mutual interest.

The Committee concludes that Australia's immigration and refugee policies in relation to the ASEAN region need to try to accommodate at least two important sets of interest: Firstly, the capacity and willingness of the Australian community to welcome and accept immigrants and refugees arriving into Australian society, and, secondly, the interests of Australia's ASEAN neighbours, who wish to continue the process of regional and international co-operation pursued since 1978 which has helped substantially to alleviate the burdens imposed on the countries of ASEAN.

Economic relations are examined at length. The report highlights significant increases in trade flows between Australia and ASEAN countries, but considers Australia's export performance in the ASEAN region to be somewhat disappointing, especially in the area of sophisticated manufactures for which ASEAN demand is fast growing. The report identifies other promising areas for the expansion of trade, provided Australian exporters maintain international competitiveness and Australia and ASEAN countries continue to liberalise their trade access policies . The services sector, for example, financial and information services, business consultancies, education and health, appears to provide particularly valuable export opportunities.

In the area of education, the report considers the issues of overseas students and Australia's education system in the context of the report of the Jackson Committee to Review the Australian Overseas Aid Program and the report of the Goldring Committee of Review of Private Overseas Student Policy. The Committee considers that study in Australia by students from ASEAN countries is a most important avenue towards greater personal contacts, improved mutual awareness and expanding commercial opportunities. The report sets out proposals intended to encourage continuing and increased educational opportunities for ASEAN students in ways which can accommodate both the interests of the ASEAN region and those of Australian education.

Ten years ago-in April 1974-Australia became the first country outside South East Asia to develop a relationship with ASEAN as a group. The Committee has concluded that the relationship overall has been successful, but it sees important challenges ahead for Australia if it is to maximise opportunities for consolidating the relationship.

The report sees a need for greater co-ordination of efforts to develop the ASEAN relationship in economic, educational, social and cultural fields. It has suggested that the establishment of an Australia-ASEAN council, modelled on the Australia-Japan Foundation and the Australia-China Council, could do much to further this goal. The report sees a major need to heighten awareness among the business sector of economic opportunities for Australia in the region and for Australian industry to become more export-oriented. The report also considers that Australia's frequent expressions of interest in the ASEAN region, as well as Asia in general, should be backed up by a commitment at the national level to promote and co-ordinate efforts in Asian studies. This is particularly relevant to Australia's economic prospects in the ASEAN region. The report supports the establishment of an Asian studies council to provide the co-ordination that is much needed in this area.

The Committee considers that the first decade of Australia's formal relationship with ASEAN has already produced a valuable expansion of co- operation on vitally important political and socio-economic issues. The reports suggests that there are close interconnections between Australia's political and economic relationships with ASEAN. In particular, Australia's economic prospects will benefit from maintenance of a mature and co-operative political interrelationship. The report concludes that with continued emphasis and innovation in several specified key areas, the relationship can be developed further to the mutual benefit of both Australia and our ASEAN neighbours.

In presenting this report I observe that I think it is a good example of the work being done by committees of the Parliament in general and the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence in particular. Recent reports of this Committee have attracted favourable attention. In commenting on a recent report of the Joint Committee on conflict and the superpowers in the Horn of Africa, a European journal recently stated that the report was notable for its clarity and objectivity and that it was of considerably higher quality than similar products of the European Parliament.

Of course, these reports would not be possible without the dedication and support of the Committee staff. Whilst all the staff attached to the Joint Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee assisted in this report, special mention should be made of Mr Ian Booth, the Sub-Committee secretary, and Dr Frank Frost, a specialist adviser to the Committee. Both of them worked long hours and in difficult circumstances arising out of a need to complete the report before the Senate rises. The completed report is a testament to their efforts. I hope that the report I present today may come to be regarded as a significant contribution towards greater understanding of the important issue of Australian-ASEAN relations. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.