“We must face the world, not turn from it. Embrace free trade, not retreat from it,”
– Malcolm Turnbull
With all eyes set on Australia as the 2018 ASEAN-Australia week leads to the summit taking place this weekend at Sydney. Although, Australia is not a member of ASEAN it intends to actively participate in the summit. The government of Australia wishes to establish closer ties with the ASEAN countries by engaging in trade-related talks. It can be a historic step towards increased trade and counter-terrorism co-operation.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a ten-membered group comprising mainland and archipelago nations like Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, and Laos. It aims to promote political, economic and social cooperation and regional stability. ASEAN was formed in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Cambodia joined in later years to make up today’s ten Member States of ASEAN.
ASEAN brings together countries with contrasting governing policies. A democratic nation can be its member. Its member countries range from quasi-military regimes, communist nations, and dictatorships to absolute monarchies. ASEAN believes in avoiding conflicts through consensus and conciliation. But its policy of ‘non-intervention’ in the affairs of its member nations has heavily faced criticism.
There have been ASEAN summits with Japan, India, China and the United States but the ASEAN summit in Sydney this weekend is the first in Australia. However, Australia has been ASEAN dialogue partner ever since 1974. The main agenda of the summit is bound to revolve around trade and security since both sides have put in a lot of effort in both realms. ASEAN is Australia’s third largest trading partner, and Australia has also played an important role in helping Southeast Asian countries counter violent extremism, including terrorism financing.
ASEAN member countries and Australia should step up and intensify cooperation in preventing the spread of terrorist ideologies and to hone even more effective approaches to counter the threats of radicalization and violent extremism in the Asia-Pacific, said Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak.
“No one country can fight terrorism alone. The more united we are, the more effective we will be in combating this terrible and inhumane scourge. None of us are safe from it. But together, we will be safer,” he said in his keynote address at the closing ceremony of the Counter-Terrorism Conference held at during the International Conference Centre (ICC) Sydney here Saturday.
The counter-terrorism Conference is one of the major highlights of the summit that started on Saturday to focus on the importance of regional collaboration in addressing the shared threat of terrorism and violent extremism. Malaysian prime minister Nijab, the only ASEAN leader invited to deliver a speech at the closing ceremony of the conference, said that Malaysia has a long and consistent record in combating the two challenges.
Mr. Turnbull, Australian Prime Minister, who is hosting the summit is expected to urge the leaders to get behind a ‘high quality’ Regional Comprehensive Partnership Deal since the Trans-Pacific free trade pact is signed. Australia, the ASEAN Bloc, China as well as India are still negotiating the deal. He also expressed hope that Indonesia would one day join the revamped Trans-Pacific Partnership, more popularly known as TPP-II.
The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and Bangladesh was also considered a serious security threat and was claimed to be an International issue rather than a domestic one. Hundreds of protesters gathered in central Sydney yesterday to urge Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi to end the violence in her country that has led to the rape and killing of ethnic Rohingyas.
Turnbull also announced a fund of A$30 million to be invested in South-East Asian countries for the development of ‘Smart Cities’. The initiative aims to set up a knowledge bank of sustainable urban planning ideas that will be shared between ASEAN and Australia.
ASEAN countries are bound to see a faster growth in smart city business, as urban populations are increasing exponentially, with high demand for security technology and solutions to traffic congestion problems.
Controversies Surrounding ASEAN-Australia Summit
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Myanmar’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, two of the more controversial leaders are supposed to attend the summit. Hun Sen’s rule has seen a crackdown on democratic institutions and forced closure of many English language newspapers. This is in line with Cambodia’s policy shift towards authoritarianism following last year’s ban on the main opposition party and arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha.
Ahead of the summit, he sparked a storm by reportedly threatening to “beat” any demonstrators and warned he would “shame” Australia and block the release of a joint communique if he was embarrassed in any way.
Meanwhile, a military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that began in August has seen nearly 700,000 of the mainly Muslim Rohingya minority flee to Bangladesh. Pressure has been mounting on Aung San Suu Kyi after a top UN rights expert warned this week the situation bore “the hallmarks of genocide”.
Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson warned Australia to avoid being in trade relationship with Cambodia and Myanmar and to bring up human rights abuses during the summit.
What’s in it for Australia?
Australia has no intention of being part of ASEAN, rather it tends to build a stronger relationship with its regional neighbors. It also intends to raise the issue of human rights violation in the region. By throwing light on the abusive ways of these countries Australia absolutely understands its responsibility towards international concerns beyond its own diplomatic benefits.
China’s growing power and supremacy in terms of defense and technology has always been a matter of concern. The communist mindset of China poses a threat to liberal-minded countries like US, India, and Australia. ASEAN exerts substantial influence over China’s decisions, despite China not being part of ASEAN. However, both are part of the East Asia summit and Australia also being a member of East Asia Summit needs to keep a check on China’s growth and influence and stopping institution to a put threat to democracy.