The South-east Asian region is one of the fastest growing economically in the world. It is a dynamic and exciting area within the Indo-Pacific, a region which straddles the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and which is home to around half the world’s population, about a third of the world’s GDP, and around a third of the world’s total exports. South-east Asia comprises an estimated 620 million people with a combined GDP of around A$3.6trn ($2.87trn), so it is an area of enormous importance to us, as well as being our neighbourhood. This is our region, it is where we live, and it is where our future lies.

Around 15% of Australia’s total trade is with the 10 countries which are now ASEAN members, making it an important trading partner for our country. We do, of course, have a free trade agreement with the ASEAN nations, with trade between Australia and ASEAN amounting to around A$100bn ($79.48bn) in 2014. Due to the fact that most of our exports travel through South-east Asia to ASEAN countries and to the rest of the world, it is a very important region for us, and I’m hoping that with the establishment of the Australia-ASEAN Council we can engage even more closely.

Australia is a highly valued partner of the south-East Asian region. We are a liberal democracy that is deeply committed to freedoms, rule of law, human rights and democratic institutions. We are an open, export-oriented market economy, which is focused on liberalising trade and encouraging further trade and investment in our region. Therefore, Australia is a natural partner for the Southeast Asian countries. This is a position that we certainly hold in high regard.

Australia will continue to grow closer to the countries of South-east Asia through work done at senior government levels and at senior business levels. Although political relationships can wax and wane and economic circumstances can ebb and flow, our countries’ engagement at a deeper level will continue to be maintained through long-term personal and institutional connections and through people-to-people links.

Indeed, some of the most successful foreign policy initiatives have been based on people-to-people links. The original Colombo Plan, for example, involved bringing people from the region to study in Australia – during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – to gain qualifications in our universities before returning home to help build the communities, economies and nations in the region. The alumni from the original scheme are now the political, business and community leaders of today. Their connection with Australia is cemented through their alumni status as Colombo Plan scholars.

We now want Australian students to have the same experience, and so we have provided funding for 10,000 of them to live, study and work in our region around the Indian Ocean, Asia-Pacific, and specifically in South-east Asia. These students will form personal connections, networks, friendships and relationships that will last a lifetime. They will strengthen the business, academic and personal ties between Australia and South-east Asia.

The Australia-ASEAN Council is an integral part of the Australian government’s public and economic diplomatic strategy. It will assist in projecting a positive image of contemporary Australia into South-east Asia. The council’s Board is chaired by Christine Holgate, managing director of the natural health company Blackmores, and comprises eminent Australians from the business, finance, media, agriculture, arts and culture sectors. The council will foster lasting partnerships across all of society, from schools and local communities to leaders and opinion shapers. It will educate Australians and increase awareness and opportunities to connect with the countries of South-east Asia.