In this curtain raiser, Chheang Vannarith argues that Australia has more to gain by actively engaging Asean to maintain regional peace and promote regional prosperity.
The leaders from Asean will be in Sydney this month to attend the special summit with Australia, which is scheduled from March 16 to 18.
A series of events will be organised on the sidelines of this historical summit. Business community, academia, and emerging leaders will gather in Sydney to celebrate the Asean-Australia week from March 12 to 18.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will skip the summit and instead will be represented by Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano. Mr Duterte’s absence is a big blow to the special summit and of course it adversely affects Asean-Australia relations and Philippine-Australia bilateral ties.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has confirmed that he will attend the summit although he earlier warned that he would skip it if the Australian host interfered in Cambodia’s internal affairs.
But Mr Hun Sen has proven to be more flexible and pragmatic than Mr Duterte in this case.
Asean welcomes an active role of and contribution by Australia in maintaining regional peace and promoting regional prosperity, and the country is an important dialogue partner of Asean.
So far, Australia has taken a proactive approach towards strengthening ties with Asean.
Australia became the dialogue partner of Asean in 1974. At the commemorative summit in 2004 to mark their 30th anniversary of the dialogue partnership, the leaders agreed to further broaden and deepen the partnership in all fields.
In 2005 Australia acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC). In 2007, a joint declaration on comprehensive partnership was issued. In 2014, the comprehensive partnership was elevated to a strategic partnership.
At the first biennial summit in Vientiane in 2016, Asean welcomed and encouraged Australia to further contribute to regional community building, especially the realisation of the vision and goals outlined in the Asean Community Vision 2025.
Growing economic interdependence, security connectivity, and people-to-people ties are the defining features of the relationship.
For one, the rising middle class in Asean – estimated to reach 400 million by 2020 – is poised to generate significant economic and business opportunities.
Around 100,000 students from Asean are studying in Australia, creating a foundation for mutual understanding and human connectivity.
Terrorism, cyber crimes, natural disasters, maritime security, and climate change are the key non-traditional security threats that require closer cooperation.
Accounting for 15 percent of Australia’s total trade, Asean is the third largest trading partner of Australia, after China and the European Union. The bilateral trade volume was about $72 billion in 2016. Two-way investment between Asean and Australia amounted to $190 billion in 2016.
There is also a need to review the Agreement Establishing the Asean-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA), which entered into force in 2010, in order to ensure a high quality agreement and further promote trade and investment cooperation.
Maintaining and promoting open, inclusive economic multilateralism is a common interest, particularly in the new era of post-US liberal economic order. Most importantly, the timely conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) serves common regional interests. Asean and Australia will consolidate their positions on the RCEP negotiations and it is expected that RCEP will be concluded by the end of the year.
The RCEP is a proposed free trade agreement between Asean and its six countries that have signed free trade agreements, namely Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
Australia has also played an important role in narrowing the development gaps within Asean exemplified by the Mekong Water Resources Programme and the Mekong Business Initiative.
In terms of human resource development, technological innovation, women entrepreneurship, social impact investment, and water resources management, Australia should provide more support to the Mekong countries,
On the South China Sea issue, Asean and Australia will likely reiterate their views on peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law, full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and the early conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).
Concerning a grand agenda, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull might use the opportunity to elaborate on the concept of the Indo-Pacific strategy.
Taking a cautious approach, Asean member countries have not expressed their clear view or position on the Indo-Pacific concept. Some members are concerned that Asean will be marginalised by the concept.
The Indo-Pacific strategy is an evolving concept and it carries different meanings and strategic goals.
At its current form, the US-led Indo-Pacific represents the interests of major powers rather than weaker states and the strategic intention of the US is to check the rising power of China.
Chheang Vannarith is Opinion Editor with the Khmer Times. The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of Khmer Times.