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                                                                                                          Published in Asia Times (Australia) 3rd November 2006

Most Western Australians could identify South East Asia or the ASEAN countries. ASEAN (Association of South East Asia) was formed on August 8, 1967, comprising countries in South East Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. It has been enlarged to include Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma) and Vietnam.

Though some of the countries in ASEAN might not be strong, collectively ASEAN is powerful. It is the major force in the region to be dealt with in terms of security, trade, or geo-political positioning. The ASEAN region has a population of about 500 million, a total area of 4.5 million square kilometers, a combined gross domestic product of almost US$ 700 billion, and a total trade of about US$ 850 billion. In 2003, the ASEAN Leaders resolved that an ASEAN Community shall be established comprising three pillars, namely, ASEAN Security Community, ASEAN Economic Community and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. In recognition of security interdependence in the Asia-Pacific region, ASEAN established the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1994. 

(ASEAN website www.aseansec.org/64.htm).

The present participants in the ARF include: Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Canada, China, European Union, India, Indonesia, Japan, Democratic Republic of Korea, Republic of Korea (ROK), Lao PDR, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Russian Federation, Singapore, Thailand, the United States, and Viet Nam.

The ARF discusses major regional security issues in the region, including the relationship amongst the major powers, non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, transnational crime, South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula, among others. (ASEAN website www.aseansec.org/64.htm).

The ARF effectively covers major powers of the World, recognizing the roles of the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, India as well as Australia / New Zealand in the ASEAN region.

ASEAN as an entity is well respected in the World. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan stated (16th February 2000) that

"Today, ASEAN is not only a well-functioning, indispensable reality in the region.  It is a real force to be reckoned with far beyond the region.  It is also a trusted partner of the United Nations in the field of development…"

Australia became ASEAN's first dialogue partner. Australia and New Zealand were invited for the first East Asian Summit in December 2005, the only “European” countries to be invited. (Australia's presence was only confirmed after Australia reversed its previous policy and agreed to execute ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation). In this respect Australia is demonstrating its maturity and political reality, taking into account her national interest as well as values and perspective of Asian neighbours.

Within the ASEAN region Australia has signed off on Free Trade Agreements with Singapore and Thailand.  Negotiations for future FTA's currently taking place are Australia and New Zealand with  ASEAN nations (Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam), known as the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand FTA. 

Various religions are practised within ASEAN. Buddhism is the main religion in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Islam is the predominant religion in Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, while the main religion in the Philippines is Christianity. Hinduism is practised widely in Bali, parts of Malaysia and Singapore. Christianity is widely practised in some of the ASEAN countries.

ASEAN has a combined gross domestic product of US$781 billion. ASEAN is a major market for Australian exporters. In 2004 ASEAN purchased 11.7 per cent of Australia’s total merchandise exports and 15 per cent of our total services exports.


Australia is an important destination for tourists and students from ASEAN. More than half of Australia’s services export earnings in ASEAN come from these two sources. In 2004, there were 72,400 student enrolments from ASEAN. 638,600 travelers from ASEAN visited Australia. (http://www.dfat.gov.au/trade/fta/asean/aust-trade.html)

In Western Australia hundreds of ASEAN students graduate from Western Australian universities, TAFE colleges, Tuart / Canning Colleges, as well as private institutions. The Malaysian Prime Minister received an Honorary Doctorate of Technology from Curtin University; the son of the Indonesian President also graduated from Curtin. It is not surprising that some of the future political leaders or business elites from the ASEAN region would have graduated from Western Australia!

Western Australian economy is highly dependent on a few products and a few major customers. Our major export products are mineral and energy resources, followed by agriculture and food.  While mineral and energy resources are more important for North Asian markets, we export agricultural products to ASEAN countries.

Statistics from the WA Department of Agriculture shows that in 2004/2005, ASEAN is our third biggest importer $874m, after North Asia (Japan, China, Korea) $2,209m and the Middle East and North Africa $1,002m.

The needs of ASEAN countries are very different from that of North Asian countries. We are blessed with migrants from all parts of ASEAN countries, who would undoubtedly contribute to better link between Western Australia and their countries of origin. The connectivity that they bring to Western Australia is invaluable and cannot be underestimated.

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