AT OXFORD Michael Spence wanted to establish a south-east Asia research centre but found it was something money just could not buy.
At the University of Sydney on Friday, the vice-chancellor opened such a centre, because of the wealth of human capital already established there.
''Oxford couldn't buy it because Sydney already had it,'' Dr Spence said.
The research centre has one of the highest concentrations of south-east Asia expertise in the world with more than 200 academics connected to the region.
The centre will have partnerships with south-east Asian countries in providing humanitarian support and seek to provide a depth of understanding of Australia's closest neighbours.
It will draw on research from a variety of fields including public health, archaeology, environmental management and human rights.
The Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, said US officials, including the Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, had asked for advice on the region.
''Indeed [the US Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton, here a couple of weeks ago with Leon Panetta for our regular defence and foreign policy consultations, said: 'We want to take your advice on this region,''' Senator Carr said.
''I took up the opportunity and I spoke about the importance of Malaysia and the fact that Malaysia hasn't had a visit from a US president since Lyndon Baines Johnson.''
Yu Nandar Aung, who is studying for a masters degree in sexually transmitted diseases, said her connection to the university had given her special access to political leaders in her native Burma, where thousands of people were dying without HIV drugs.
She attended a meeting there and, after talking about the problem, the Burmese government allocated $US2.3 million ($2.2 million) towards the provision of the drugs.
Dr Spence said the university had ''an obvious triangle with our US studies centre, our China studies centre and the south-east Asia centre''.
''The future of the world is in the western Pacific. The relationship between China, south-east Asia and Australia is crucial,'' he said.
Dr Spence said the university provided the core of funding for each of the centres but foreign governments, including that of China, contributed through funding research projects and scholarships.
The director of the centre, Associate Professor Michele Ford, said many universities, including Sydney, already had a China centre. ''South-east Asia tends to take a back seat and when it does get a look in, the focus has generally been on the humanities and social sciences,'' she said. ''It's time to give this important region the attention it deserves.''