As Australia hosts the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Sydney, former trade minister Tim Fischer says the time is finally right to join the regional grouping.
“The wheel has gone the full circle from standoff and suspicion to support for a big leap forward with engagement and I think it is early days with this latest wave of interest but I welcome it,” Mr Fischer told The New Daily.
The comments come after Indonesian president Joko Widodo – head of the biggest nation in ASEAN – threw his support behind Australia’s move from ‘strategic partner’ to full member.
That’s a move long supported by former Australian prime minister Paul Keating, who famously said in 1992 that Australia’s economic and strategic future lay in engaging more fully with south-east Asian nations.
Mr Fischer became deputy prime minister and minister for trade when the Keating government was defeated in 1996, with the Coalition taking a more cautious line on the group comprising Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei.
But Mr Fischer said times have clearly changed, and Australia must make the most of its opportunities.
“It is the need for small and middle powers to canoe together and that is, to some extent, the rise of both China and India along with a trade- aggressive USA, still unfolding,” Mr Fischer said.
“I am conscious of this new set of dynamics causing regional neighbours to brush up their linkages, and I think it is well worth examining.”
Australia’s trade with ASEAN countries last financial year was worth more than $100 billion.
At Friday’s opening media conferences of the three-day summit, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull signalled a commitment to further talks on joining ASEAN.
“You don’t grow stronger by closing the door to other markets,” he said alongside Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
“Protectionism is a dead end. It is not a ladder to get you out of the low- growth trap, it is a shovel to dig it much deeper. We must face the world, not turn from it. Embrace free trade, not retreat from it.”
Mr Fischer said Australia’s acceptance of a waiver of the US steel and aluminium tariffs did not mean we were not standing up for free trade.
“Australia would be happy to be able to have it waived for every other single country in the world – in other words, for the USA to withdraw from this particular initiative,” he said.
If something is put on offer we cannot be blamed for accepting it, but still remain fundamentally for greater multi-lateral, regional, bi-lateral linkages all leading to lower tariffs and free trade.”
And he proposes another trade grouping which could be established even before full ASEAN membership.
“I think we have the mix about right, but that’s always going to be helped by enhanced regional groupings of one kind or another.
“That could be ASEAN plus Australia, it could also be SCANZUK and with Brexit now exactly one year away this month – with or without agreement – Australia is going to be looking to pick up the pieces.
“So a group that would be put together of Singapore, Canada, Australia, New Zealand with the United Kingdom, a fast-moving Commonwealth orientated group in the aftermath of Brexit, I strongly commend and believe it is very much worth examining.”
Human rights in the spotlight
While the business and security connections are the key focus of the ASEAN summit, there’s no avoiding the human rights issues that blight some nations despite the association’s upbeat anthem that claims to “care to share”.
Amnesty International hosted a demonstration on Sydney Harbour on Friday to focus attention to the plight of Rohingya people in Myanmar who have fled ethnic cleansing.
“ASEAN has been shamefully silent on what is happening in one of its member states so far,” the group said in a statement.
Australia’s Cambodian community is also a visible presence on the street, with Prime Minister Hun Sen banning that nation’s main opposition party and closing the English language newspaper.
Mr Hun Sen invited controversy with his threat to “beat” Australian Cambodians who protest at the summit and was on Friday reportedly taken to task by Mr Turnbull behind closed doors.
Former Australian foreign-minister-turned-ANU-chancellor Gareth Evans has said the Cambodian government is “getting away with murder” and last week called for greater action against “egregious misbehaviour”.
Professor Evans, who played a central role in establishing the UN peace plan for Cambodia, said in remarks on the ANU’s newmandala.org website that Cambodia needed to be “pulled back from the brink”.
“It is time for Cambodia’s political leaders to be named, shamed, investigated and sanctioned by the international community,” he said.