Canberra - The Australian host did not get an invitation to an exclusive meeting in Kuala Lumpur. His Malaysian visitor did not secure an Australian agreement to sign an Asean friendship pact. The two things that did not happen during Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s visit to Australia last week reflected the wide political gulf that continues to exist despite a determined effort by both sides to push bilateral relations to new heights after almost two decades of often-prickly ties.
According to the New Sunday Times, Mr Abdullah was painted as a “villain of sorts” by the Australian media after he said that no decision had been made yet onAustralia’s participation in the inaugural East Asia Summit that would be held in Kuala Lumpur in December. His answer was seen as a snub to Mr Howard, who had a few days earlier secured visiting Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s support for Australia’s participation in the summit.
Mr Howard said later: “It’s a matter for Asean to decide, we’d be very happy to participate but we are not knocking on doors begging admission.”
The Australian leader was not the only one left disappointed. Mr Abdullah had made it clear to his host that Malaysia would like to see Australia sign Asean’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which the grouping views as a must for any country wanting to get engaged in the region. The treaty prohibits military aggression against each other.
But Australia, like its close ally, the United States, has refused to sign the treaty. Both argue that the document was framed during the Cold War and is no longer relevant.
While there are plenty of disappointments on both sides during the historic visit – the first by a Malaysian Premier in two decades – both Mr Abdullah and Mr Howard appeared determined not to allow their political differences serve as a drag in their bilateral relations.
“Prime Minister Howard and I agreed not to allow any differences to disrupt bilateral ties between our two countries. We agreed to isolate the differences and not allow them to affect the sectors that are working well,” Mr Abdullah told reporters on April 8.
In a commentary, Mingguan Malaysia, while acknowledging the continuing political differences, said that Mr Abdullah’s visit had “breathed new life” into the two countries' relationship. In a veiled reference to Australia’s close ties with the United States, the Malay-language newspaper said: “What is needed is for both countries to place their individual and shared interests in the regional context above that of the interests of other parties outside the region.
“Differences in certain political issues should not be regarded as obstacles to greater political bilateral cooperation in the future.”
* New life in KL-Canberra ties (Mingguan Malaysia, April 10)
* PM: Visit paves way for better ties (New Sunday Times, April 10)
* Howard will not beg for Asean invitation (The Straits Times, April 9)
* KL, Canberra can’t quite bridge the gulf (The Straits Times, April 8)