Australia will ramp up its efforts to help south-east Asian countries fight serious crime, as it seeks to build influence in a region where China is increasingly dominant.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is considering prospective bidders to oversee the new program focusing on crime in the Mekong region – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam – with a decision due by the start of March.
With a budget of $30m over eight years, the Mekong-Australia Program on Transnational Crime will help those countries to tackle trafficking in illicit drugs, human trafficking, child sexual exploitation and financial crimes.
“Australia is committed to strengthening engagement with partners in Mekong countries to reinforce our collective response to transnational crime,” a Dfat spokesperson said.
“Transnational crime generates tens of billions of dollars a year for organised crime groups through illicit activities in the region, undermining regional stability and economic development.”
The tender process to find a manager for the Mekong-Australia Program on Transnational Crime is currently under way. The program was originally due to begin late last year but Covid-19 prompted a delay.
The director of the Lowy Institute’s south-east Asia program, Ben Bland, said the Dfat initiative was “part of a wider push to deepen links with governments and law enforcement agencies in a region of growing geopolitical importance, where China is playing an increasingly dominant role”.
“If Australia and its partners such as the US and Japan want to counter-balance Beijing, they need to find more ways to help the region tackle the day-to-day problems it faces, such as transnational crime,” Bland said.
South-east Asia is now the largest methamphetamine market in the world, according to a Dfat document that outlines the design of the new program.
Citing figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the document estimates that illicit flows of goods and persons in southeast Asia are worth between US$73bn and US$114bn a year.
Many of those threats, it says, are in the Mekong region in mainland south-east Asia.
Bland said transnational crime was causing major problems for the region’s governments.
“Helped by the region’s long, porous borders, sophisticated criminal organisations are involved in a wide range of illicit activities including the production of drugs, money laundering and the trafficking of humans and endangered wildlife,” he said.
While he cited the broader geopolitical factors that may have played a role in the program design, Bland also said Australia had an interest in stopping crime in the region.
“Many of the organised crime groups in the Mekong region have links to Australia, whether through the methamphetamine trade or money laundering, so there is also a direct national interest in improving the capacity of regional governments to combat these activities,” Bland said.
When asked about whether the strengthening of ties with Mekong countries formed part of a rebalancing at a time of tensions with China, the Dfat spokesperson said the program would “promote regional coordination to address regional challenges”.
“Australia has an enduring interest in an inclusive, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” the spokesperson said.
“We are supporting that by working with our Mekong partners – as well as the United States, China and Japan – to combat narcotics trafficking and money laundering in the region.”
The firm that Dfat ultimately selects as the management contractor will work closely with countries in the region to draw up detailed plans, in coordination with Australian government agencies.
The program aims to “identify key issues, contribute to research and analysis, and harness Australian government expertise”.
Apart from working to address a range of serious crimes, the program will also examine “the enabling environment for law enforcement and regulatory agencies in Mekong countries or regionally”.
The program is to be funded out of Australia’s official development assistance (ODA) budget.
In the latest example of Australia seeking to deepen ties across the broader Indo-Pacific region, Scott Morrison met virtually with Malaysia’s prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, on Wednesday. The pair elevated the status of the relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”.