Australian Embassy
Lao People's Democratic Republic
Km 4, Thadeua Road, Watnak (P.O. Box 292)

Lao PDR ASEAN Chairmanship year 2016

Lao PDR ASEAN Chairmanship year 2016
Capacity Building Program
8 May 2015, Vientiane
Speech by Australian Ambassador, John Williams


H.E. Vice Minister Alounkeo, H.E. Dr Surin Pitsuwan (former Secretary General of ASEAN & Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kingdom of Thailand), Nancy Kim and her team from The Asia Foundation, distinguished participants, friends and colleagues.

I am delighted to join you this morning at the first of several workshops Australia is supporting, in collaboration with our partners from The Asia Foundation and MFA’s ASEAN Directorate, to facilitate Lao Government thinking and preparations for your host year in 2016. 237 days from now!!

Australia was ASEAN’s first dialogue partner, back in 1974.

We regard ASEAN as a major success story in international affairs, and essential to achieving and preserving a stable and prosperous region.

Fortunately for Australia, the dynamic region of South-East Asia - 10 countries and 625 million people - is our backyard, our neighbourhood. So what has been good for ASEAN, has also been good for Australia.

We were therefore heartened by the decision in Nay Pyi Taw last November, at the 40th Anniversary Australia-ASEAN Leaders Commemorative Summit, to elevate our relationship to a strategic partnership.

For us, that acknowledged the road Australia and ASEAN have travelled together. And it signalled a shared future, continued collaboration to promote the security and prosperity of this part of the world.

In “holding the pen” for ASEAN again in 2016, the Lao PDR is assuming prime responsibility for the vision, leadership and strong habit of consultation that have become the defining feature of regional stability and prosperity in SE Asia.

In 2016, even more so than in 2004, ASEAN has a vital role in helping all of us successfully manage the changing strategic dynamics in the broader Indo-Pacific region – including the relationships among the major players.

In this, ASEAN centrality remains a crucial strategic asset for our region. Helping to balance these changing dynamics. And delivering, in ASEAN-led forums, a neutral platform to actively manage some of the region’s more sensitive issues.

This includes, of course, the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea (which I know is Vice Minister Alounkeo’s favourite subject) – an issue that affects claimants and non-claimants alike. These disputed waters are a major thoroughfare for international trade – including over half Australia’s trade.

That’s why it’s important for regional countries to invest in ASEAN-led mechanisms.

Australia was a founding member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, or ARF.

We see real value also in the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (the ADMM+) in fostering military-to-military cooperation, to reduce risks of miscalculation, and conflict.

And we see great potential in the East Asia Summit – the EAS – to evolve further as the premier regional forum.

It is a leaders-led process, with ASEAN at its heart. Bringing together all the major regional players – the leaders of the United States, China and India at the one table. And it has the mandate to address the most compelling issues of our times.

The EAS can help ensure regional financial and economic integration keeps moving forward. It’s a potential vehicle to help address the transnational issues of our times – resource and food security, non-proliferation and terrorism, disaster management, pandemic response.

And, most importantly from Australia’s perspective, the EAS can help nurture habits of consultation across the region.

As ASEAN has demonstrated clearly, consultation can make the search for solutions easier, and diminish the risks of miscalculation.

Malaysia is leading work this year – the 10th anniversary of the EAS – to look at how we can, together, further strengthen the forum. In the Malaysian Foreign Minister’s words, as a more “focused, strategic and interactive engagement among leaders”.

We hope this work in 2015 will generate momentum for the Lao PDR next year to cement the EAS as an inclusive and effective centrepiece in the ASEAN-led regional architecture. ///

I don’t want to underestimate the organisational and policy challenges of an ASEAN host year. The effort across government required for Australia to successfully host the G20 summit and other G20 meetings through 2014 was a massive investment.

For an ASEAN chair, over 1000 meetings – 1,400 meetings Vice Minister Alounkeo advises – over 365 days, involving senior officials, ministers and Heads of Government and State from ASEAN and its dialogue partners, business and civil society forums, and throngs of international media - bringing significant logistical and protocol challenges.

But they’re challenges the Lao PDR has handled well before, as recently as ASEM in late 2012, when I believe 33 world leaders converged on Vientiane.

But beyond these challenges lies significant opportunity. The chance for the Lao PDR to showcase its achievements to the world.

And the chance for the Lao PDR to prioritise Laos’ interests within ASEAN, as you seek to maintain the momentum of regional integration.

From my perspective, the issues that matter most to the Lao PDR, are issues that matter to all of ASEAN, and to your dialogue partners like Australia.

Like narrowing the gap in ASEAN. And certainly connectivity – financial, physical and trade connectivity.

As we move into 2016, the first official year of the AEC, it’s good, from my perspective, for ASEAN to have the Lao PDR as chair.

It’s important for us all to understand the Lao PDR’s perspectives and challenges, and to look more closely at issues like SME development, like human resource development, migrant workers and remittences, or the value in a regional integrated power grid as one part of the puzzle that is the region’s future energy challenges – and a vital driver of future economic development in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

In terms of policy priorities in 2016, the possibilities are tremendous. Effective and open coordination across government agencies will help you identify where you can draw the most value. I hope today, and the workshops to follow, will help facilitate further ideas on your potential focus in your host year.

It is wonderful to have so many senior, pivotal officials from a wide range of agencies here today. This network among you, and how you work together, will be vital, I believe, for Laos achieving your ambitions as chair in 2016.

There are also real opportunities, I believe, for the Lao PDR to achieve further progress in 2016 on the sort of ASEAN administrative reform issues that have been pursued under the mantle of the High Level Task Force (HLTF).

I believe progressive ideas for reform tabled by the Lao PDR might well be something all ASEAN members embrace, and see as possible.

I have already congratulated the Vice Minister on Laos’ success in securing back-to-back ASEAN Summits in November next year, and not hosting a separate event in April.

I know many, if not all, of your ASEAN partners will welcome this. With over 1,000 meetings each year, everyone agrees on the need to streamline. But how to do this is harder, as I believe the HLTF process showed. You have made an important breakthrough on rationalisation. I hope you can build on it in 2016, and in the lead-up to 2016 as you continue preparations.

There’s also the issue of strengthening the ASEAN Secretariat, which struggles by with an annual budget, I believe, of only $17 million.

I know there is some support in ASEAN to change the current formula of equal contributions, and link it perhaps to capacity to pay. And possibly to increase contributions. And to stop subsidising non-ASEAN EAS partners, like Australia, by providing an avenue for us to make contributions to a Secretariat that is also servicing the EAS. Right now, we are getting a free ride.

The scope for good, new ideas is considerable. I have always wondered why ASEAN does not take up the G20 troika model – where the current, past and future chairs (right now that would be Myanmar, Malaysia and Laos) meet regularly, to strengthen continuity in the ASEAN agenda from year to year.

That’s enough from me, I believe. I just wanted to plant the seed of possibility at the outset of today’s workshop. And to wish you well in your preparations over the next 237 days before the baton passes to Vientiane from Kuala Lumpur.

I’m particularly delighted Dr Surin was able to travel to Vientiane to spearhead today’s workshop. We all know he’s an articulate and authoritative voice on ASEAN.

He’s also an excellent tour guide. On my first diplomatic posting to Thailand back in 1996, before he became Foreign Minister, Dr Surin hosted me and my boss for a day in his home province in Nakhon Sri Thammarat. It was one of the more insightful and enjoyable days in what was an extremely enjoyable 4-year posting!! I remember it well.

Thanks again to Vice Minister Alounkeo for his attendance and remarks, to Dr Surin, and to Nancy and the team from The Asia Foundation and MFA’s ASEAN Directorate for managing today’s event.

And thanks again for the opportunity to speak to you this morning. I wish you every success in your collective efforts to prepare for Laos’ ASEAN host year in 2016. Australia is delighted to be assist.