- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2005

SYDNEY, Australia — Australia appears to be on the verge of signing a nonaggression pact with East Asian nations as a precondition to being invited to attend the East Asian Summit, a regional group set for its inaugural meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in December.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who travels to Beijing today, previously dismissed the treaty as an outdated concept and said that signing the friendship agreement was not necessary for being invited to what is viewed as a potential East Asian community, much like the European Union.

Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have requested an Australian signature on the “amity and cooperation” treaty, which commits members to not attacking one another.

Short of promising to sign the treaty, Mr. Howard has told Sky News that there was a “new element” to the talks and that “we’ll have a look at the whole thing.”

Aldo Borgu, director at the Canberra-based Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said: “This government is not big on symbolism. The success it has had on the global stage — helping East Timor reach independence, being a partner on war on terror, its economic strength after the East Asian crisis, has made it more confident. It believes that countries should want to deal with it directly, not through symbolism. But ASEAN is high on symbolism, and you must recognize that and not be a cultural island.”

In the past seven years, after the East Asian economic crisis, the 10 countries of the ASEAN plus Japan, South Korea and China have emerged as the most influential regional grouping. Proposals have included currency-stabilizing schemes, an Asian bond market, an Asian monetary fund and regional strategic oil reserves. This grouping is about to transform itself into the East Asian Summit, and Australia might become its newest member.

Malaysia has opposed the inclusion of Australia, and China is indicating reservations as well.

On the eve of the prime minister’s trip, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that diplomats in Beijing said the leadership was getting worried about “Australia’s deepening strategic links with Japan, the recent focus of bitter protest in China over its whitewashing of wartime aggression and its recent push for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.”

But Mr. Howard has said that Japan remains Australia’s most important ally in Asia.

“Australia has no better friend in Asia than Japan — our largest export market for almost 40 years and a strategic partner,” he said.

During a visit to India last week, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao announced that Beijing supports New Delhi’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council but opposes such a position for Japan.

“One of the things that Howard is going to try and do is to build a strategic partnership with China,” Mr Borgu said. “And as Beijing is behind the East Asian Summit … China’s acceptance or nonacceptance of Australia’s position on various issues is crucial.

“The hesitancy to expand the summit rests with China, as the last thing they want is to have another U.S. ally or another friendly country to Japan in their grouping.”

Strategic analysts on both sides of the political divide in Australia think that after some browbeating, Australia is likely to sign the treaty with face-saving qualifications.

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