Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Australia wants to join a new grouping of Asian nations, but it is balking at a prerequisite that it first sign a non-aggression pact. Prime Minister John Howard's government worries such a move could impact Australia's alliance with Washington.
Later this year, Malaysia will host an inaugural East Asia Summit, which will bring together the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as China, Japan, South Korea and India.
Australia and New Zealand are also eager to take part, but while the latter has expressed its willingness to meet the requirement of signing the pact, Australia objects.
ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in the Philippines earlier this month settled on the non-aggression pact as a requirement for participation in the summit in Kuala Lumpur in December.
Officially called the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the pact was signed by original ASEAN members in 1976, and subsequently by China, India and others in the region.
Australia sees the pact as a relic of the Cold War, and argues that signing it could make it difficult for Australia in the future to criticize other signatories - such as Burma - for human rights abuses.
But its main concern involves its close political and military alliance with the United States.
Howard upset many in Southeast Asia when he declared in 2002 that his government would be willing to order military strikes in neighboring countries, if necessary, to pre-empt terrorist attacks being planned against Australians.
The comments came after 202 people, including 88 Australians, were killed in bombings in Bali, Indonesia.
Howard subsequently made it clear that he was talking about last-resort strikes against terrorist bases. He also argued that international law needed to be amended, saying the U.N. charter on self-defense was outdated in a climate in which terrorism and weapons of mass destruction posed greater threats than conventional attacks by one state against another.
Although a political transition in Malaysia since then has produced a leader more friendly to Australia than his predecessor, the Muslim nation remains wary of Australia, regarding it as an outsider in the region and too supportive of U.S. foreign policies.
Malaysia is not only hosting the summit but it also has been a prime mover behind the concept of a new Asian regional grouping.
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi at the weekend made it clear that signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation would be a litmus test of Australia's intentions toward Asia.
Speaking at an economic forum in China - with Howard in the audience - Abdullah said that no country that does not wish to harm other in the region should have any difficulty signing the treaty, which would not oblige them to terminate any military alliances they may have.
The East Asia community needs to be one in which member do not "seek common cause" with powers outside the region, he said.
Abdullah did not name either Australia or the U.S. in this context, but the implications were clear.
Speaking after the forum, Howard played down the issue, saying that regional structures and "architecture" were less important to him than was the "substance" of Australia's good relationships in the Asian region.
But Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer signaled a shift Monday, saying the government would hold talks with ASEAN official over the weeks ahead about the treaty and difficulties Australia had with signing it.
It was possible a formula could be found that would enable Canberra to sign the treaty but also satisfy its concerns, he said, declaring himself "moderately optimistic" of the chances of success.
Among the main clauses, the treaty prohibits signatories from interfering in each other's internal affairs and requires the "renunciation of the threat or use of force."
It also bases itself on the spirit and principles of various agreements, including "the Ten Principles adopted by the Asian-African Conference" in 1955.
That conference, in Bandung, Indonesia, laid the groundwork for the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement, a grouping of developing nations professing neutrality in the context of the Cold War.
Downer said Australia had problems with the so-called Bandung principles of non-alignment.
"We are unashamedly aligned, we have an alliance with the U.S.," he told Australian radio. "We are concerned about the reference ... to so-called non interference in the internal affairs of other countries, that is to say, not to criticize other countries."
Another weakness in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, from Australia's perspective, is the fact that the ASEAN-initiated pact provides for a "high council" to revolve any disputes among signatories - but that council only includes representatives of ASEAN member states.
Non-ASEAN signatories would therefore not be represented on a body empowered to settle disputes, even if they are themselves involved in such disputes.
Downer conceded that ASEAN members would not likely agree to amending the pact to cover Australia's reservations, but said a compromise may be possible.
Meanwhile, New Zealand has been more amenable to the idea of signing the treaty.
Foreign Minister Phil Goff said his government had studied the document and come to the conclusion it would not curtail New Zealand's ability to speak out about human rights abuses.
Although New Zealand has taken part in U.S.-led coalition activity in Afghanistan and Iraq, its defense alliance with the U.S. has been all-but-defunct since the 1980s, when a Labor government refused to allow nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered ships access to its ports.
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