The Morrison Government is about to unveil several new development initiatives to reassert Australia’s influence in South-East Asia as China continues to expand its presence across the region.
- The Prime Minster will announce new aid programs in health, governance and infrastructure
- Canberra will unveil a major development program for Mekong basin countries
- The announcement comes after years of successive cuts to Australia’s aid budget
Prime Minister Scott Morrison will make the commitments over the weekend at two crucial regional meetings: the ASEAN-Australia Summit and the East Asia Summit.
Both summits are being held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ABC has been told Mr Morrison will promise to expand Australia’s development assistance in South-East Asia by announcing several new programs designed to improve health, governance and infrastructure.
The announcements will include a series of new health programs for the region, as well as an initiative to provide “high-calibre advice” to South-East Asian governments on infrastructure funding.
China’s Government has poured billions of dollars into major infrastructure projects across South-East Asia.
The Australian Government is particularly anxious about the proliferation of Chinese-backed dams along the vast Mekong River, wreaking environmental devastation in countries like Laos and Cambodia.
The Prime Minister will also unveil a major development program designed to build “economic resilience” in Mekong basin countries, and a new initiative to help South-East Asian nations implement free trade agreements.
It’s not yet clear how much money the Government will funnel into the new programs, but sources from two South-East Asian countries said they expected it would be a substantial commitment.
Australia’s return to South-East Asia follows years of divestment
Labor and foreign aid advocacy groups have accused the Coalition of neglecting South-East Asia because of its preoccupation with the Pacific Step-up, which is designed to reinvigorate Australia’s influence in the immediate region.
Australian aid to South-East Asia has declined sharply since 2014, partly because of aid budget cuts and partly because more money is being funnelled to the Pacific.
But the coronavirus pandemic and Australia’s increasingly uncertain strategic outlook has focussed the Federal Government’s attention on the region.
The Coalition has already promised $500 million to help provide a COVID-19 vaccine to both South-East Asia and the Pacific in a move welcomed by humanitarian groups.
Earlier this week, Canberra also announced that it would lend Indonesia $1.5 billion dollars to help it deal with the economic fallout from COVID-19.
Australian aid to Indonesia
Some Australians have criticised Indonesian military spending on Twitter and other social media, saying the relief money for disasters should be taken from the country’s military budget, and not provided by foreign aid.
Ahead of the summits, the Prime Minister said in a statement that ASEAN “remains at the heart of Australia’s vision for a peaceful, stable, inclusive, sovereign, prosperous and resilient Indo-Pacific.”
Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong again criticised the Coalition’s aid cuts in the region, accusing the Government of “abandoning Australia’s leadership role in South-East Asia”
“If not, others will fill the vacuum.”