Contributed by Australian High Commissioner to Brunei Darussalam Luke Arnold
Today, January 26, marks Australia’s national day – Australia Day.
For Australians, Australia Day is an opportunity to celebrate our nation, its achievements and, most of all, its people. It’s also an opportunity to think about Australia’s future and the role we want to play in our part of the world and beyond.
On Australia Day 2023, many of us will be reflecting on Australia’s increasing engagement in the Indo-Pacific region and the growing value we place on being a strong partner for our Southeast Asian neighbours – including Brunei Darussalam.
Australia has been a longstanding friend to Southeast Asia, and we are in the process of deepening even further our engagement with Brunei and the broader Southeast Asia region.
In 2022, Foreign Minister Penny Wong visited Brunei and progressed a range of practical areas of cooperation between our countries. This came on the heels of the establishment of bilateral Senior Officials’ Talks, which Brunei hosted in Bandar Seri Begawan following endorsement by His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam.
Australia is also enhancing our support for ASEAN, including through the ASEAN-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership – which His Majesty helped to broker during Brunei’s ASEAN Chairmanship in 2021. Under this agreement, we have already funded 10 Bruneians to undertake postgraduate studies in Australia. We are also supporting a range of capacity-building efforts across Southeast Asia and are planning to support the establishment in Brunei of the ASEAN Centre for Climate Change.
One factor driving Australia’s deeper partnerships with Southeast Asia is, of course, geography. From Darwin in Australia’s north, it is only 2,600 kilometres (km) to Bandar Seri Begawan – compared with 3,100km from Darwin to Australia’s capital, Canberra. Unless tectonic plates start unexpectedly shifting, we are going to be near neighbours for a very long time!
Australia’s demographics are also opening up opportunities for us to further strengthen connections with our neighbours. We are now very much a modern, multicultural society.
Over 17 per cent of Australians claim Asian ancestry, including one million people with Southeast Asian heritage. Foreign Minister Wong, for example, was born in nearby Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
Australia is now home to over 800,000 Muslims (around twice the number of Muslims in Brunei!) and we take great pride in the rich cultures of our First Nations peoples.
Another reason Australia is engaging more intensely with our neighbours in Southeast Asia is that we recognise that our future is tied to the future of our region. As Foreign Minister Wong has pointed out, we Australians see ourselves as part of the most vibrant and dynamic region in the world – the Indo-Pacific region.
Our shared region is changing rapidly. These changes are multi-faceted, including technological (the rise of artificial intelligence), demographic (ageing populations), geopolitical (great power competition) and environmental (global warming) dynamics.
For both Australia and our Southeast Asian neighbours to thrive amid these changes, we will need to collaborate closely. Indeed, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said that “my government is committed to working with our Southeast Asian regional partners on the issues that matter to us all – food and energy security, a net zero future and our collective prosperity and resilience”.
Like Brunei, Australia cannot thrive in a region where might equals right. So we will continue to work with our neighbours to build a strategic equilibrium in the region, where countries manage differences through international law rather than by resorting to brute power and size.
Together, Australia and Brunei can seize the opportunities and address the challenges that the future of our shared region holds. That is certainly something to celebrate this Australia Day.