Australia and the Southeast Asian Treaty

To no one’s surprise, at last week’s meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Laos, Australia announced its intention to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. It will do so later in the year, after the government has run the text through the Australian Parliament. For many people, the annoucement represented a 180-degree turnaround from previous Australian government statements indicating a refusal to sign the treaty. To some, it was a humiliating about-face.

On the face of it, the TAC, as the treaty is called for short, is a ‘natural’ for Australia to sign. Indeed, after it was amended in 1987 to allow non-Southeast Asian states to accede to it, Australia, under another leadership, was one of the first countries to express an interest in doing so. Concluded by the then six ASEAN member-states at their first summit in Bali in 1976, the TAC is one of the association’s defining documents. It has two main parts. The first commits its adherents to certain principles of inter-state behavior, including respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations; non-interference in the internal affairs of one another; the peaceful settlement of disputes and the renunciation of the threat or use of force; and cooperation among themselves. These are principles enshrined in many other charters, treaties and agreements of this nature.

The other part pertains to the peaceful settlement of disputes. A High Council composed of ministers of the signatories to the treaty is to ‘take cognizance of the existence of disputes or situations likely to disturb regional peace and harmony’ and ‘recommend to the parties in dispute appropriate means of settlement’ or ‘appropriate measures for the prevention of a deterioration of the dispute or the situation.’ The High Council would not be a tribunal of any kind; it would not have the power to make binding judgments. In every case, resort to the treaty would have to have the consent of the parties to the dispute.

The 1987 amendment extended the treaty’s principles to encompass the conduct in Southeast Asia of states outside of it. Papua New Guinea signed it in August 1989. The ASEAN foreign ministers adopted the rules of procedure for the High Council in 2001. Subsequently, China and India acceded to the treaty in October 2003, Japan and Pakistan in July 2004, and South Korea and Russia in November 2004. At ASEAN’s summit meeting with Australia and New Zealand last November, ASEAN ‘encouraged’ Australia and New Zealand to sign on. Last May, Wellington announced its decision to accede to the TAC, and Foreign Minister Phil Goff signed it on 28 July (as did his Mongolian counterpart).

On the other hand, Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer had quickly declared Canberra’s refusal to sign for several reasons. One was the treaty’s alleged provenance in the Non-Aligned Movement, which was said to be outdated. Howard has been quoted as saying that the document is a ‘relic of the Cold War.’ However, most of the non-regional signatories, like China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia, cannot in any manner be considered as non-aligned. Another was the possible impact of Canberra’s signature on its valued alliance with the United States, although two ASEAN members, the Philippines and Thailand, and two non-regional parties to the TAC, Japan and South Korea, are U. S. allies. A third was the constraint imposed by the non-interference principle on Australia’s ability to comment on other signatories’ internal affairs. Finally, Canberra objected to the provision of the treaty that reserves membership in the High Council to Southeast Asian parties, with a non-regional signatory entitled to participate only if it is one of the parties to the dispute under consideration.

Canberra’s chafing at the non-interference principle raised suspicions about its intentions for Southeast Asia, particularly in the light of Howard’s acknowledgement of the possibility of ‘pre-emptive’ action against a terrorist threat from another country. Its desire to have a seat on the High Council equal to those of the Southeast Asians raised the question of why Australia would want to sit in on discussions on a dispute between two Southeast Asian states or between one of them and a non-regional TAC party other than Australia itself.

In any event, Australian diplomacy was caught in a bind when, at their April 2005 ‘retreat’ in the Philippines, the ASEAN foreign ministers decided that adherence to the TAC was a condition, along with full Dialogue Partner status and ‘substantial relations’ with ASEAN, for participation in the East Asian Summit scheduled in December 2005 in Kuala Lumpur.

This condition forced Australia’s hand. Not fulfilling the condition would have denied it a sterling opportunity to advance its fundamental goal of closer linkages with East Asia. Nevertheless, Canberra’s initial refusal to sign the treaty — indeed, its denigration of it — had affected Southeast Asians’ perceptions of its intentions and motives. Australia continued to signal its reluctance even after it had apparently decided to accede to the TAC; Downer was quoted as saying, ‘If the price (of participation in the East Asian summit) is signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, we’ll do that.’

This is too bad, because Australia has, otherwise, excellent relations with ASEAN and its members, including Indonesia and Malaysia, relations which have had their ups and downs. Australia was ASEAN’s very first Dialogue Partner, a relationship that goes back to 1974. Its aid program, which started in that year, has been considered by ASEAN as productive and responsive to the region’s needs. Remarkably, Australia has extended assistance to the ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea) Emerging Infectious Diseases program. ASEAN’s economic ministers have held regular consultations with their Australian and New Zealand counterparts since 1995. The two sides are now in the midst of negotiations on a free trade area between ASEAN members and the Closer Economic Relations of Australia and New Zealand.

Australia’s presence in Laos and Cambodia has been quite significant. Australia financed the construction of the first and only bridge across the Mekong. Although it does not fail to raise human rights issues with Yangon, Australia’s approach to Myanmar has been more pragmatic than showy. Australia is the destination of choice for many Malaysians and other Southeast Asians seeking a foreign education. Its cooperation with Southeast Asian countries has extended to security matters. For example, Australia is a leading member of the Five-Power Defense Arrangement with Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. More Philippine officers study and train in Australia’s defense institutions than in the United States, Manila’s treaty ally and former colonizer. Counter-terrorism cooperation takes place between Australian and Southeast Asian law-enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Under either political party, Australia has long considered close association with ASEAN and with the larger East Asian region to be in its highest interests. Accession to the TAC, as well as participation in the East Asian Summit, will be a highly visible manifestation of this association. All’s well that ends well, of course, but a bit more enthusiasm and a bit less reluctance on Canberra’s part would have been even better.