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Australia to focus on Asia, trade issues

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop calling on PM Lee at the Istana yesterday. The Australian Foreign Minister is on a two-day visit to Singapore, one of the first nations she has visited in her new role. -- PHOTO: MCI

Publication Date : 04-10-2013


Australia remains firmly in the Western alliance and will move with Southeast Asia as it accepts the United States rebalance towards the region and builds closer ties with the lone superpower.

That, together with a strong commitment to Asia and an emphasis on trade-focused diplomacy, is the unambiguous external policy message from Australia's new Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

"My sense is that the Southeast Asian region wants more US involvement, not less," Bishop told The Straits Times in an interview.

"They are very keen to encourage the rebalance in all its manifestations. Australia itself has a number of initiatives, including the troops rotation through Darwin."

New Prime Minister Tony Abbott, she said, has a neat phrase that sums it up - "More Jakarta, less Geneva". And that is why he chose Indonesia for his maiden overseas trip as Australia's leader.

Another area of focused interest for Australia are the nations along the Indian Ocean rim.

Bishop, two weeks into her job as Foreign Minister, is on a two-day visit to Singapore, one of the first nations she has visited in her new role.

Yesterday, she called on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and was hosted to dinner by Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam.

Australia is a key member of the Western strategic alliance, although in recent years, it has sought to build closer ties with China. The Chinese mainland is now its biggest trading partner and a key investor.

Among the new initiatives planned by the Abbott government, which took power in Canberra last month, is to raise the defence budget, currently at 1.4 per cent of gross domestic product, to 2 per cent.

While there is no timeframe, and the next national Budget is not due until May next year, the aim is to reach that figure as quickly as possible. Australia has a GDP of about US$1.6 trillion.

"We are one of those countries that benefit from the US security umbrella but we also believe we must pull our weight," said Bishop.

At the same time, Canberra, which now has military exchanges with Beijing, also hopes to see a strong bilateral relationship between the US and China.

That, she said, would help underpin security in the region.

"The more China is involved with the region, the more likely it will be a strong positive global player," she added.

On the competing claims in the South China Sea, an issue that is vexing ties between China and some South-east Asian countries, Ms Bishop said her country had no position.

But, she added, Australia believes in a rules- based international system and encourages the discussion of the issue at the East Asia Summit.

"It is not a bilateral issue but goes beyond it and appropriate forums should discuss it. I understand the US plans to raise the issue," she said.

Australia's ties with Southeast Asia are centred on Indonesia, but its tough approach towards refugees sailing from Indonesia has caused some testiness in the relationship.

Bishop noted that some 1,100 refugees had died trying to make the passage to Australia.

"That must stop. We will work with Indonesia under a bilateral framework to dismantle this trade," she said.

Canberra, she said, was comfortable with Jakarta's growing assertiveness in its external relations.

"It represents a growing confidence that they can not only be regional leaders, but global players," she said.

"They are on track to be a significant economy and they are the largest Muslim democracy. We see Indonesia taking a larger global role over time."


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