BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN –  The hallmarks of a good friendship are trust, openness, respect, and a willingness to support each other through both good and challenging times.

2020 was a tough year. Our region has been seriously impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To respond to this pandemic effectively, our countries need to support each other, to support economic growth, and to support our shared vision for a peaceful, inclusive, sovereign and resilient Indo-Pacific region.

At the ASEAN-Australia Summit, East Asia Summit and RCEP Summit late last year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made our commitment to recovery, resilience and security very clear: Australia is investing in partnerships in Southeast Asia and the region’s priorities are our priorities. We have a shared stake in each other’s recovery.

As Brunei takes the reins as ASEAN chair in 2021, we look forward to working closely on our shared priorities, and are committed to caring, preparing and prospering together as we emerge from the pandemic.

As Australia sees it, the first step to getting back on our feet is a coordinated and effective regional health response.

We’ve already tried to assist where we can, rolling out medical equipment and direct support in Southeast Asia in response to COVID-19, including the recent donation of laboratory equipment to the Royal Brunei Armed Forces.

In November, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that we will commit AUD$500 million to support access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines and promote health security in the Indo-Pacific. This includes a AUD$21 million investment in the new ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases, which will help combat COVID-19 and prepare the region for future pandemics. 

We also need to ensure that while we focus on COVID-19, we don’t take our eye off the ball with other infectious diseases in the region. That is why Australia will also provide AUD$24 million to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

On top of the concern we’re all feeling about the health impacts of a virus like this one, COVID-19 has turned our lives upside down. Many people have lost their jobs and there is uncertainty about how COVID-19 will impact our lives into the future. Australia will work with Brunei to help normalise seeking help and support for mental health issues, particularly as the region recovers from the broader impacts of the pandemic. 

Australia is also focused on supporting economic recovery after COVID-19.

Australia’s trade and investment relationship with the region is already very strong.  Last year saw more than AUD$122 billion in two-way trade and over AUD$250 billion in two-way investment stocks with ASEAN nations. 

But we can, and should, find more opportunities to facilitate increased trade and investment to bolster our COVID-19 recovery.

The historic signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement will do just that. We congratulate Brunei for becoming the first country to officially sign the RCEP agreement. The agreement sends a strong signal that economic openness and ASEAN centrality will continue to define the Indo-Pacific.

To help ensure RCEP is a success, Australia is investing AUD$46 million as part of a Regional Trade for Development Initiative to help ASEAN countries implement this and other trade commitments, such as the ASEAN Australia New Zealand Free Trade Agreement.

We also recognise the importance for Brunei and other ASEAN nations of their vast maritime resources. So we’re investing AUD$65 million to support the ongoing development of marine resources and to help ensure maritime domains are secure and prosperous. 

In order to grow our economies, we also need to develop infrastructure.

Infrastructure is the backbone of our countries. It needs to be high quality, sustainable, and meet the needs of the communities it serves.

Australia’s approach to infrastructure investment is a partnership with Southeast Asian countries. Australia has demonstrated expertise in developing infrastructure that we are keen to share, including on renewable energy technologies, 5G and cyber security.

Australia stands ready to support infrastructure policy and regulatory reforms in our region to deliver economic and social benefits for all. We want to help ASEAN partners access the advice they need to make the best decisions about infrastructure planning, procurement, policy and projects.

Together, we can build smart, sustainable and resilient cities across the region.

The health and prosperity of our countries rely on our region’s security and stability.

Australia strongly supports ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.  Our support is grounded in a firm belief that a peaceful, inclusive, sovereign and resilient region is in all our interests.

To bolster our region’s security needs, we have announced a further AUD$104 million to support closer defence ties and greater security capability, and will bolster our footprint across the region, including a new defence adviser in Brunei.

The comprehensive initiatives we have announced are an investment in resilience, recovery and security in our region. 

They are also an investment in the future of our partnership with Brunei and our Southeast Asian neighbours.

We are united by common purpose: to ensure our people are healthy and educated. To empower our people to earn a living, grow businesses, and support their families. To provide safety and security for all our communities. And to recover and rebuild from COVID-19.

Australia will be with Brunei and Southeast Asia every step of the way. It’s what good friends do for each other.

Tiffany McDonald is Australia’s high commissioner to Brunei Darussalam.