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International relations

Australia courts Southeast Asia with unprecedented summit

Leaders to talk trade and security amid doubts about US, concerns about China

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull takes a selfie with a delegate in Sydney on March 16.   © Reuters

MELBOURNE -- This weekend will see an unprecedented summit between the Australian prime minister and Southeast Asian leaders when they meet in Sydney to work on enhancing security cooperation and business ties.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the leader of the center-right Liberal Party, will host nine of the 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations during the first-ever ASEAN-Australia Special Summit on March 17-18.

Turnbull has framed the summit, which comes against a backdrop of growing Chinese assertiveness and doubts about continuing U.S. influence, as an opportunity to boost both security and prosperity.

"We must take responsibility for our own security and prosperity, while recognizing that we are stronger when we share the burden of leadership with trusted partners," said Turnbull, a former investment banker and venture capitalist, in an opinion piece published by The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday. "ASEAN is vital to this ambition. It has been a bulwark of stability and constancy for 50 years."

Together, the ASEAN economies -- Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam -- are Australia's third-largest trading partner, after the U.S. and Japan. ASEAN and Australia signed a free trade agreement together with New Zealand in 2009. In 2016-17, trade between ASEAN and Australia topped A$100 billion ($78 billion).

Graeme Dobell, a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, noted that free trade remains relatively popular in the region compared to elsewhere.

"There's still a pretty large agreement about what the traditional trade framework has delivered for the region and for Australia," he said. "So the argument is actually a bit more of a nuts-and-bolts one."

Cooperation on counter-terrorism will be another key agenda item. Canberra, one of Washington's closest security allies, already maintains close military relations with Indonesia and the Philippines, where it has supported efforts to suppress militants linked to the Islamic State group.

"A strong ASEAN is a strategic shield for Australia. A weak ASEAN is an archipelago from or through which threats can arrive," said Dobell. "So in straight strategic terms, all of the traditional views about what we want from Southeast Asia are as important as ever."

But before it has even begun, the summit has attracted controversy.

Human rights groups here called on Turnbull to highlight abuses occurring in ASEAN member states. Protests have been organized against Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been accused of stifling political opposition and the press in his country.

De facto Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been widely condemned for ignoring the ethnic cleansing of that country's Rohingya minority, is also expected to face demonstrations in Sydney. Earlier this month, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced he would skip the summit amid condemnation from Australia and other nations of his support for extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals.

Turnbull's diplomatic push also comes as Australia walks an increasingly precarious tightrope between the U.S., its principal military ally, and China, its main trading partner. With the future of U.S. power in the region in doubt, some analysts have posited Southeast Asia as a counterbalance or alternative to Beijing's growing military and diplomatic clout.

"There's a sort of double-edged diversification point here: One is a diplomatic and strategic diversification, so that Australia is not just reliant on the great power relationships of the U.S and China and that it makes the most of its near neighbors as far as it can," said Euan Graham, an analyst at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. "And economically, [it's] the same logic, so that it's not beholden to China even more than it currently is."

"That's where the advantage of a middle power like Australia comes into its own," Graham added. "Because Australia doesn't have the same straitjacket of great power status that China and America have, [Australia has] more flexibility."

Cooperation between Australia and ASEAN, however, may be limited by design. As a loose association of members, ASEAN's individual states retain full sovereignty over their affairs. Unlike the European Union, the organization has no parliament and must make decisions by consensus.

"We have to apply a very large discount to what ASEAN can do as an institution, and that's why the primary function of this summit is really about the symbolism of trying to elevate Southeast Asia in Australian diplomacy," said Graham.

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