THE Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and Australia have begun charting a fresh course to ensure that the partners steer clear of the economic conflagration that has befallen most Western economies.
The 25th Asean-Australia Forum took place barely a week after Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard made public the policy white paper “Australia in the Asian Century,” which outlines what Australia needs to do to take advantage of “Asia’s return to global leadership.”
Sitting down for a daylong dialogue last week, Asean and Australian officials—headed by Foreign Undersecretary Erlinda Basilio and Roderick Smith, first acting secretary of the Australian Trade and Foreign Affairs Department—started drafting a new Comprehensive Partnership Plan of Action to direct bilateral-cooperation activities. “That was a very comprehensive document that looks at the ways in which Australia and Asean together are cooperating across the three pillars of Asean community-building,” Smith said.
“We have a very wide range of practical activities, all of which underpin the work that Asean is doing toward building the Asean community in 2015.” The final draft of the action plan is expected to be completed toward the end of next year, although senior officials are to report of the development to Asean and Australian leaders next week in Phnom Penh. The new five-year plan of action is set to be implemented beginning 2014, which marks Asean and Australia’s 40th year as dialogue partners.
Asean and Australia have both pledged to strengthen cooperation in combating transnational crimes, including terrorism and trafficking in persons, promotion of human rights, environment, climate change and biodiversity, as well as food and energy security.
ANOTHER area they agreed to continue cooperating on is maritime security.
But officials were careful to mute maritime cooperation, considering the backdrop of simmering tensions due to overlapping maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea and the East Sea.
“We all agree that it’s very important to continue to work together and look for ways in which we can help reduce tensions over the issue of the South China Sea, manage those over time, and look to build cooperation,” Smith said.
Claimants—and even non-claimant states with interest in the region’s shipping lanes—are in agreement that a code of conduct needs to be adopted at the earliest time to prevent the tension from deteriorating to open conflict. China, however, is opting to bide its time and wait until conditions are ripe to begin negotiations.
In the meantime, Asean is undertaking other projects—including the recent maritime experts’ forum held in Manila—to keep discussions and ties active.
An Australian expert spoke in that forum, in attestation of Australia’s eagerness to contribute expertise and ideas to advance confidence-building efforts.
ASEAN and Australia also emphasized the importance of pursuing regional integration and addressing both traditional and non-traditional security concerns through Asean-centric efforts, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS), Asean Regional Forum and Asean Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+).
Asean also thanked Australia for its initiatives on drug-resistant malaria, which are expected to be among the key topics for discussion in the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh.
Other important ongoing processes between Asean and Australia include:
- The implementation of the Asean-Australia-New Zealand Free-Trade Agreement; and
- The launching of negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which would take place at the sidelines of the upcoming EAS.
Two-way trade between Asean and Australia amounted to approximately $88.4 billion in 2011, accounting for 14.5 percent of Australia’s total trade.
“Asean greatly values its relations with Australia, Asean’s first dialogue partner.... Australia’s engagements with Asean have been deep, significant and have had a great impact on our regional integration,” said Basilio.
The Philippines is Asean’s country coordinator for Asean-Australia Dialogue Relations for 2012-2015. “Indeed, Australia’s engagements with Asean have been deep, significant and have had a great impact on our regional integration,” Basilio continued.
Australia has been supporting Asean’s Master Plan on Asean Connectivity, as well as the grouping’s efforts to narrow development gaps, alleviating poverty and promoting sustainable development,as well as disaster management.
“We’ve been working at this [relationship] for a long time, and we’ll see a continuation of that. Over the next five years, we’ll see a further deepening of it,” Smith said.
AUSTRALIA’S intensified involvement in Asean is part of the Gillard government’s strategy to exploit the promise of a robust Asian economy.
Among the initiatives included in the white paper are the appointment of a dedicated ambassador to Asean to be based in Jakarta, as well as planning for an embassy in Mongolia and consulates in Shenyang, Phuket and eastern Indonesia.
Asean and Australia began dialogue relations in 1974, seven years after the economic bloc’s establishment.
Australia, since then, has been an active partner and has been part of the founding of key Asean mechanisms, such as the Asean Regional Forum in 1994, the East Asia Summit in 2005, the ADMM+ in 2010 and the Expanded Asean Maritime Forum last month.
Johnna Villaviray Giolagon
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