A lot was written last week about the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne and there’s no doubt that the ASEAN region represents an important relationship for Australia. Foreign Minister, Penny Wong came into Government promising to improve Australia’s relationship with SE Asia and, after several announcements during the Summit (including A$2 billion to promote business ties, $277 million for ‘international development, regional security and measures to combat climate change’ and $61.5 million to fund a new cultural centre, university scholarships, professional placements and co-operation on energy) Prime Minister Albanese left nobody in any doubt by saying “more than any other part of the world, Southeast Asia is where Australia’s destiny lies”.

The main problem for Australian businesses is that, whilst the sum of the ASEAN parts is substantial (a young, dynamic and tech savvy population of 640 million, a rising middle class and a combined GDP of over US$3.6 trillion) the individual markets are somewhat small, disparate and diverse. The two obvious standouts are Singapore as a tech and private wealth hub and Indonesia as a future economic powerhouse, and perhaps this is where we need to start.

But I have to admit to being confused by all of this Government rhetoric. Australia’s engagement with Asia (if you exclude China) is small, irrelevant and virtually non existent when compared with the USA, UK and Europe. Our business leaders and institutional investors lean towards New York and London rather than Jakarta and Bangkok (not to mention Mumbai, Shanghai or Dubai) and most Australians have never travelled to places like Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam except as tourists.

Perhaps it’s in the pursuit of peace and stability in our region where Australia has the most to gain from engagement with ASEAN leaders, and this is of course very welcome. If so, here’s to another 50 years of peace!

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