SYDNEY — A bridge between East Asia and the South Pacific has been formed. The way is open for economic and security links to be strengthened between the Asian mainland and its Southern Hemisphere neighbors.
A crowded week of meetings in Canberra has forged closer ties with Indonesia and Malaysia. In the wake of Australia’s free-trade deals with Singapore and Thailand the way is now open for similar agreements with the next prospective partners, Japan and China. On the Canberra agenda after that are strategic links stretching to India.
What a week it has been. First the Indonesian leader drops in, then the head of Malaysia. Australian Prime Minister John Howard was kept so busy talking deals he had to skip a flight to Rome for the pope’s funeral.
An extraordinary convergence of geopolitical events is how Australian Asia-spotters view these times. In a matter of weeks they see the region’s mood changing for the better. A tsunami crushed the lives of a million people, only to be followed by superhuman reconstruction efforts leading to a peak of regional cooperation that promises to replace historic differences with real progress.
For the Australian psyche, often spooked by noisy protests in nearby Muslim countries, a turning point came when visiting Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono thanked Australia for help in the cleanup of the Dec. 26 tsunami. He shared the grief that Australians still feel over the deaths of nine Australian medical aid workers who were killed when their helicopter crashed on Nias Island, Indonesia.
“There are lessons I can learn from the incident and how Australians have contributed and participated in helping Indonesia, especially in Aceh,” the Indonesian leader said.
As for Malaysia, where relations during the reign of then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad could politely be described as prickly, the sounds coming from visiting Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi were music to Canberra ears. He was, however, wary on the subject of Canberra’s current push to get a seat at the first East Asian Summit in Kuala Lumpur later this year.
This Malaysian-hosted summit will bring Japan, China and South Korea into close dialogue with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Australia sees value in joining a wider trade-and-security grouping along with India and New Zealand. A key stumbling block to date has been Malaysia, first under Mahathir and to a lesser extent under Abdullah.
While Indonesia’s Yudhoyono was warming to the idea of Australian membership — he declared his country could be a bridge between this region and East Asia — the Malaysian leader advised a reality check. “Many issues need to be discussed,” Abdullah told questioners.
The last stumbling block appears to be refusal to sign up to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Howard explained: “Given that the treaty was delivered to the region by a mind-set that we’ve really all moved on from, I don’t think it appropriate that Australia should sign.”
The treaty, a nonaggression pact conceived by nonaligned Southeast Asian states during the Cold War, has been signed by a number of non-ASEAN nations including Japan, South Korea, China, India and Russia. ASEAN sees Canberra’s compliance as a symbolic gesture that could give Australia a full voice in the region and a seat at this year’s summit.
Kevin Rudd, the Labor Party’s foreign affairs spokesman was ready as usual with a Howard-spiking comment: “It’s extraordinary for Howard, on a day when the Malaysian prime minister is in town, to say the treaty is old hat and that he doesn’t have the slightest intention of giving it positive consideration.”
That little blot on the week’s smiling photos did remind Australia that the two visits had pragmatic purposes, not all of which were achieved. Still, symbolic or more, these visits did advance regional relations to an extraordinary degree.
Yudhoyono’s visit was only the third by an Indonesian president, compared with 11 visits that Howard has made to Jakarta since he became prime minister nine years ago. Abdullah’s visit was the first by a Malaysian leader in 21 years, a delay triggered not least because of the time that then-Prime Minister Paul Keating sent people running for dictionaries when he called Mahathir “recalcitrant” followed by Mahathir’s labeling Canberra Washington’s “deputy sheriff.”
The newly achieved chumminess seems certain to lead to practical gains for all sides. In the case of Malaysia, negotiations will start in May on a free-trade deal that could boost the two-way flow, now worth $10 billion. Already Toyota, which ships 65,000 cars a year to 14 countries from its Australian plants, is rubbing its hands. Toyota Australia president Ted Okada says: “We hope a formal free-trade arrangement between Malaysia and Australia leads to a broadening of trade with the ASEAN region.”
Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile is enthusiastic: “Together with Australia’s free trade deals with Singapore and Thailand, plus negotiations with ASEAN and New Zealand, an FTA with Malaysia will deepen integration with Southeastern Asia economies. If Malaysia’s tariff barriers on Australian cars are reduced, we can compete in that market.”
Long-term stability will be enhanced under a new Australia-Malaysia Institute. An exchange scheme will fund exchanges of students, teachers and politicians. Malaysia is already a vital market for Australia’s burgeoning business in educating young Asians, sending the third-largest number of foreign students here.
Jakarta is not yet in a position to talk free trade deals with Canberra, but the Yudhoyono visit was still one of the most productive in a history of at-times tense bilateral relations.
Following Australia’s $1 billion aid package for Aceh victims of the tsunami and the more recent Australian aid to survivors of the March 28 earthquake on Nias Island, the Indonesian leader responded with assurances that Jakarta is looking south for a “landmark” link.
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