Kuala Lumpur – A new chapter in Asean-Australia relationship opened on Dec 10 after Canberra finally inked a friendship pact that it had resisted from signing for the past 15 years. Asean had made the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) as a pre-requisite for joining the inaugural East Asia Summit (EAS).
When Australia began seeking closer ties with Asean 15 years ago, it claimed that it could not sign the treaty - which includes a non-aggression pledge – because it could undermine Canberra's security treaty with the United States. The US-Australia pact commits the two countries to come to each other's aid in the event of an attack.
But in July this year, Australia said that it was ready to sign the treaty in order to obtain a seat at the EAS. Speaking at a press conference before the signing ceremony, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said there were countries which did not want Australia in the EAS, but were prepared to go along with the consensus if it signed the treaty.
"To put it bluntly, there was a quid pro quo but we are quite happy to live with it as we can participate actively in the summit," Mr Downer said.
"However, we have negotiated an understanding with Asean that we will sign the TAC without disrupting relations with countries beyond the region, particularly with the United States.
"We are delighted to participate in the summit considering it is one of the important institutions which we hope to take forward to a broader community of nations in the region," Mr Downer added.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, whose country is hosting the inaugural EAS, said by signing the TAC, Australia showed that Canberra wanted to be part of the region, both geo-politically and geo-economically, and contribute to its development.
The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which was first signed in 1976, prevents member nations from interfering in each other's internal affairs. It also calls for the resolution of conflicts through peaceful means and for the upholding of the principle of consensus in decision-making. Apart from the Asean members, the other signatories of the treaty include Japan, South Korea, China, India and Russia.
* After 15 years, Australia is in (The Sunday Star, Dec 11)
* Australia signs at last (New Sunday Times, Dec 11)