Australia and Laos – Moving Forward Together

Australia and Laos – Moving Forward Together
Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mr. Saleumxay Kommasith as guest of honour at the 2023 Australia Day reception

Australian Ambassador to Laos, Mr. Paul Kelly, reflects upon the relationship between Laos and Australia in an op-ed as the two countries move forward together.

A country’s national day is a chance to reflect on the past and to think about what we want to work towards in the future. As Australia’s Ambassador to Laos, it is a time for my team and I to think deeply about our relationship with Laos – how far we have come and what we hope to achieve in the coming years.

Last year, 2022, was an important year for Australia and Laos. We marked 70 years of unbroken diplomatic ties. During the year, I noticed several recurring themes that seem to underpin the foundations of our successful relationship.

First, we acknowledged shared achievements like the first Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge and its role as a critical first step in, and enduring source of support for, Laos’ connectivity agenda.

Second, central to the success of our longstanding partnership is our strong support for the Lao Government’s investment in human resource development. Australia–Laos collaboration on education and human resource development dates back to the early years of the Colombo Plan in the 1950s.

Australian Government scholarships have helped many Lao citizens achieve their leadership potential in the government, business, and community sectors – particularly women, people from ethnic backgrounds, and persons living with a disability. Investing in education is an investment in Laos’ human capital and the ties our two countries share.

Australia and Laos – Moving Forward Together
The Australian Embassy celebrated the 70th anniversary Laos Mittaphab Gala with more Australian alumni in November 2022

Third, we continued to build upon the mutual respect, trust, and understanding that underpin our close bilateral ties through high-level visits and meetings. This included Deputy Prime Minister Saleumxay’s October visit to Australia, and our leader-level meeting in the margins of the ASEAN Summits in November, which saw our Prime Ministers announce their intention to elevate our relationship to a Comprehensive Partnership.

The elevation will explore ways to expand or deepen areas for bilateral and regional cooperation – on human resources, on energy and climate change, and on transnational crime. It demonstrates the value we place on our bilateral relationship and our shared commitment to strengthening our cooperation.  That’s the foundation on which we will build our next 70 years.

Australia and Laos – Moving Forward Together
Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mr. Saleumxay Kommasith with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong in a tree planting ceremony in Canberra, October 2022.

I expect another area in our growing relationship will include supporting investment and connectivity. The Australian Government has announced the appointment of eminent Australian business leader, Nicholas Moore, to develop Australia’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040. The strategy will map emerging trade and investment opportunities across key sectors in Southeast Asia and match those with Australian capabilities.

Quality Australian business investment has been a feature of our bilateral relationship.  It’s an area that I’d like to grow.  The Southeast Asia Economic Strategy will help identify opportunities that are emerging in Laos – and will bring them to the attention of Australian businesses. That’ll be good for both countries.

The year ahead presents challenges and opportunities for Laos, Australia, and the region.

Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Penny Wong recently set out Australia’s vision for the region. Australia seeks a region:

  • that is peaceful, predictable, and governed by accepted rules and norms;
  • where all countries can cooperate, trade and thrive;
  • where our relations are based on respect and partnership, and are guided by the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific; and
  • where all states can contribute to a strategic equilibrium where countries are not required to choose sides and can make their own sovereign choices.

Minister Wong encouraged small and medium-sized nations – like Laos and Australia – to see themselves as more than just supporting players in a grand drama of global geopolitics. It is up to all of us to create the kind of world to which we aspire.

Building the conditions for a peaceful, open, stable, and prosperous world in which sovereignty is respected must be the principal aim of Australia’s diplomacy – of every nation’s diplomacy. Australia seeks to work with Laos and other ASEAN partners to shape this period of change together.

Indeed in regard to ASEAN, Laos and Australia are bound very close through a fortunate set of circumstances. Laos is Australia’s ‘Country Coordinator’ for ASEAN from 2022 to 2024. This means we will be working very closely as Laos prepares to chair ASEAN in 2024 – the same year that ASEAN and Australia will recognize 50 years since Australia became ASEAN’s first dialogue Partner, and the 30th anniversary of the opening of the first Friendship Bridge. Australia is committed to supporting Laos to deliver a successful chair year.

Australia and Laos – Moving Forward Together
Ambassador Kelly and DG Chatoulong Bouasisavath at a workshop for the ASEAN Attachment Program, which is helping Lao officials increase their skills and understanding of ASEAN processes ahead of Laos’ 2024 Chair year

At home in Australia, our national day is increasingly a time to reflect on and acknowledge our past. For Australia, this includes the ongoing history, traditions, and cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples – a story that began over 60,000 years ago.

We were delighted to host Yamatji musician, Mark Atkins, for our Australia Day function this week. During his visit to Vientiane, Mark delivered a workshop at the National University of Laos and performed on Lao Youth Radio, giving audience members an opportunity to exchange views and to learn more about the world’s oldest continuing culture.

As Australians reflect on our national day and look forward to the future, I am confident about Australia’s relationship with Laos given the strong foundations that underpin it.

Written by Paul Kelly, Australian Ambassador to Laos.

–The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Laotian Times.