ASEAN snubbed by Australia's reluctance to ink nonaggression pact.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations is disconcerted by Australia's reluctance to accede to its nonaggression pact to promote stability in the region, with ASEAN officials saying Saturday it has created friction at a time when the two sides are attempting to deepen relations.
ASEAN has been urging both Australia and New Zealand to accede to their Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia as the grouping on one side and Australia and New Zealand on the other prepare for their commemorative summit meeting Tuesday to mark some 30 years of ties. Australia became ASEAN's dialogue partner in 1974 and New Zealand in 1975.
However, while New Zealand has signaled its readiness to accede, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Friday he is unlikely to sign the treaty.
According to ASEAN officials, ASEAN is hoping for at least some positive expression of interest from the two countries that could be mentioned in a joint declaration to be issued at their summit.
''ASEAN countries would like to call upon Australia and New Zealand to seriously consider acceding to the Treaty. If they consider themselves part of the region, they should recognize the treaty, which lays down confidence-building among regional countries,'' Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai told reporters on Saturday.
An ASEAN official, who declined to be named, said that an Australian deputy minister has threatened to make an issue out of Myanmar's slow progress toward democracy, violence in Thailand's southern region and corruption in some countries if ASEAN does not stop pushing Australia on acceding to the treaty.
The ASEAN official said ASEAN foreign ministers were particularly dismayed as some of them had even suggested during ASEAN's own meeting earlier on Saturday of the possibility of including Australia and New Zealand in a proposed East Asian summit in the future.
The move is aimed at forging a closer relationship between ASEAN and Australia after years of uneasy ties due to the perception that Australia has often attempted to impose Western standards on the region, such as pressuring ASEAN to do more to censure Myanmar's slow progress toward democracy.
China and India already acceded to the TAC last year, and Japan and Pakistan acceded this year. South Korea also acceded to the treaty on Saturday while Russia is scheduled to sign it on Monday on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit meetings here.
Australia's hesitation has already roused skepticism among some ASEAN countries on Australia's intentions in the region. Some officials were saying that Australia fears that acceding to the TAC might temper Australia's plan, based on Howard's recent comments, to launch preemptive strikes if terrorists in neighboring nations were planning to attack Australia. Others say that Australia is worried of the implications if North Korea also acceded to the treaty.
''We are all absolutely one in saying that Australia and New Zealand ought to be encouraged to sign on to accede to the TAC. But at the same time we must respect their wish and we should not try to impose it on them,'' Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa said Saturday. He added that ASEAN believes ''accession to the TAC would still be compatible with Australia's alliance relationship with the United States.''
Economic ministers from ASEAN agreed at their meeting in September to recommend to their leaders to launch negotiations for a free trade agreement in 2005 with the target of concluding it in two years.