ASEAN-Australia Partnership on Sustainable Development

AAYLF delegate from Thailand Prued Wahachart explores the opportunities and areas of focus for sustainable development of the ASEAN-Australia region.

Born out of immediate necessity, the ASEAN-Australia partnership has long evolved around the political domain, ever since the two became formal dialogue partners in 1974. But as the regional paradigm shifts from war-time political anxiety towards economic-driven development, ASEAN and Australia have begun to recognize the importance of strengthening regional economic and people-to-people collaborations which continue to set the scene for a more deeply integrated partnership of the two parties in an array of dimensions. 

Trade is one of, if not the most, impressive partnership dimension. With $42bn worth of trade in goods and services in 2000, ASEAN and Australia have managed to triple that number to $121bn in 2018[1]. Additionally, ASEAN-Australia two-way foreign investment in the same period is worth more than $200bn [2]. Rapid economic advancement, however, does not directly translate to sustainable economic growth. While their trading partnership and shared prosperity occupy the headlines, ASEAN and Australia are at the same time facing two challenges that share the keys to sustainable solutions. 

1. Hunger and Poverty – While we enjoy our high-class expensive meals, many of our ASEAN fellows go to bed hungry. Although ASEAN has achieved the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in reducing its poverty incidence from 17 percent in 2005 to only 7 percent in 2018, 90 percent of this number is from Indonesia and the Philippines. Apart from the income disparity ASEAN-wise, many of the working poor are still vulnerable to falling back under the poverty line. Australia is no different. According to the Foodbank Hunger Report 2018 [3], 20 percent of Australians went hungry over the past year. Given its population of 25 million people, that means five million Australians do not live up to the living standard. The rising cost of living, amongst other reasons, is the main cause of this issue for both ASEAN and Australia.

2. Waste Management – ASEAN is surprisingly among the world’s worst marine waste producers. Along with China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are responsible for 60 percent of the world’s 9 million tons of plastic waste in the ocean annually. In ASEAN alone, more than 150 million tons of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) are generated annually. More than 50 percent of these are organic waste or food-related, which could be redistributed more effectively, such as to communities, animals, or upcycling for value addition. On the other hand, Australia generated 67 million tons of waste in 2018, up from 50 million tons in 2011 [4]. While roughly 50 percent of this amount is recycled domestically, the solution for the other half are still unclear. If left uninterrupted, ASEAN and Australia will soon reach the point of no return: unsustainable management that sacrifices the future of the next generations. 

While economic growth is one of the main factors that drive these situations, it should not be the scapegoat. Rather, ASEAN and Australia must seek to enhance their economic partnership in a way that encourages even stronger growth while redistributing and managing resources more sustainably. The two must shift from profit-driven approaches to inclusivity and sustainability-driven development. Along with deepening the ASEAN-Australia economic partnership through the existing regional stages such as AANZFTA, RCEP or TPP etc., we should also enhance competitive-advantage-oriented collaborations: ASEAN leads on the areas of its strengths while supported and learning from Australia on what the latter does better. These collaborations should be promoted at all levels: youth-to-youth, people-to-people, business-to-business, government-to-government, and Public-Private Partnership (PPP). 

To survive and prosper in the 21st century, ASEAN and Australia must together shift from the profit-driven mindset and short-term gains towards the sustainability-driven development strategies with the long-term visions. Tackling the issue of sustainable development is no easy mission: it requires deepened mutual understandings, shared goals, and sometimes one or two step-backs for the much longer and lasting journey. But with the right mindset: exchange and collaborations at all levels, ASEAN and Australia will become the next global economic engines without having to sacrifice the futures of the next generations.


  1. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). (2019). Australia’s direction of goods and services trade — calendar years from 1987 to present. Australia’s direction of goods and services trade — calendar years from 1987 to present. Barton, Canberra. Retrieved from 
  2. 2 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). (2019). Trade And Investment At A Glance 2019. TRADE AND INVESTMENT AT A GLANCE 2019 (pp. 36–38). Barton, Canberra. Retrieved from 
  3. Foodbank Australia. (2018). FoodBank Hunger report 2018. FoodBank Hunger report 2018. Retrieved from 
  4. Cuthbertson, D. (2019, May 20). A year after China shut the door, how will Australia deal with its recycling? Retrieved November 9, 2019, from 

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