PM commits to $550 million in aid for Southeast Asia

Seven years of budget cuts to Australian overseas aid have finally come to an end with Prime Minister Scott Morrison announcing a $550 million package for South-East Asia.

Morrison announced the regional investment at the weekend, following a virtual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-Australia Summit. The package includes funding of $21 million for the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases, as part of Australia’s commitment of an additional $500 million over three years to support access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines for the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

In addition, Australia will invest $24 million towards the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

After years of urging successive Coalition Governments to increase Australian Aid, only to have it slashed in budget after budget, Christian leaders welcomed the Government’s announcement as proof of Australia’s renewed commitment to the region.

Reverend Tim Costello, Executive Director of Micah Australia – a coalition of Christians who have consistently advocated for Australian Aid’s increase – said he hopes the announcement heralds a new era of re-engaged Australian leadership in the region.

“The Morrison Government is to be congratulated for taking decisive action in the face of a global crisis. This is an important act of regional leadership at a time of significant need,” he said, referencing the impact of COVID upon the developing countries. The pandemic has pushed almost 37 million people below the US$1.90 a day extreme poverty line. This number is expected to surpass 70 million by the end of 2020.

“COVID-19 demands both a health and economic response,” Costello said. “By supporting our neighbours, we are securing our fastest possible recovery and ultimately a shared prosperous post-pandemic future.”

Australia has pledged $232 million to support economic integration and development in the Mekong. This includes scholarships for emerging leaders, strengthening of cyber and critical technology capabilities, and support for the implementation of the Vietnam Enhanced Economic Engagement Strategy. Australia will also open a liaison office in Myanmar’s capital, Nay Pyi Taw.

The Mekong River begins in China and flows through Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it is central to the livelihoods of around 60 million people. The program aims to help better manage the region’s water resources for greater and more sustainable economic opportunities. In recent years, drought conditions have been exacerbated in the downstream region of the Mekong due to dams upstream.

“This investment demonstrates Australia is a neighbour that cares …” – Tim Costello

Australia will also: invest a further $104 million towards the region’s emerging security needs, including in military education, infectious diseases, cyber resilience, maritime security and English language training; expand our Defence Adviser and Defence Attaché network to cover all ASEAN countries and fund Australia’s defence industry to work with regional partners on peacekeeping; support ASEAN’s economic recovery with $70 million for high quality infrastructure development and technical assistance, plus $65 million for regional maritime states to develop their marine resources sustainably and address challenges through enhanced training, technical advice and cooperation.

In addition, $13 million will go to helping partners work with technology standards-setting bodies to get their economies geared for the future. Around $46 million will be available for eligible ASEAN countries for technical assistance and capacity building to help implement the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the ASEAN-Australia and New Zealand Free Trade Agreement – an initiative aimed at supporting open, rules-based trade as the world emerges from the pandemic recession.

Morrison was honest about Australia’s self-interest when announcing the massive injection of aid after so many years of budget cuts. “Australia has a clear national interest in a prosperous, peaceful and secure Southeast Asia in which countries cooperate to resolve common problems. Our partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has helped support regional security and prosperity for nearly 50 years,” he said.

“ASEAN’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will be critical for Australia’s economic interests. Our two-way trade with ASEAN is worth $124 billion annually, three of our top ten trading partners – Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand – are ASEAN member states.”

Costello has long argued that Australian Aid benefits both the countries receiving it and Australia, as the giver. He responded pragmatically to the PM’s admission. “After years of ‘stepping down’ with cuts to our aid budget across the region, Australia’s commitment to provide strong support to South-East Asia is both humanitarian and strategic,” Costello said.

“This investment demonstrates Australia is a neighbour that cares, and one committed to seeing our region prosperous and peaceful.”