“A resounding success” - that was how Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described the first ever ASEAN-Australia Special Summit.
Speaking at the close of a two-day meet with nine ASEAN leaders on Sunday (Mar 18), Mr Turnbull said the summit comes at a “critical time in history” where the pace and scale of change is “utterly without precedent”.
“The summit has given us an opportunity to confirm Australia’s steadfast commitment to ASEAN, the centrality of ASEAN and Australia as an all-weather friend, now and into the future,” said Mr Turnbull.
“Over the past 50 years, ASEAN has used its influence to support and maintain the rule of law, and this Special Summit has demonstrated that Australia is committed to backing ASEAN in this role," he added, saying that the regional group’s leadership is critical in developing and maintaining a prosperous region.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who co-chaired the summit, said he was happy with the meet’s outcomes.
“The purpose of the summit was to focus our minds, and give our civil servants the impetus to complete specific projects and, at the same time, to have top-level exchanges of views … and that we have achieved,” said Mr Lee.
CYBERSECURITY A KEY TOPIC DISCUSSED IN SUMMIT
The summit concluded with both sides adopting a joint statement - the Sydney declaration - which sets out their shared commitment to boost cooperation on various issues.
The leaders exchanged views on ways to boost cooperation on security issues, particularly cybersecurity. To that end, a landmark memorandum of understanding to combat international terrorism was inked on Saturday, focusing on developing capabilities to deal with terrorists’ use of technology to spread their ideology.
“Nowhere is far away from anywhere when it comes to terrorism, and none of us can tackle this threat alone,” said Mr Turnbull, adding that the laws that apply offline must apply online.
Several initiatives were announced during the summit, like a new digital standards to make it easier for businesses to conduct cross-border digital trade.
On top of that, an AUD$30 million (US$24 million) investment was announced by Mr Turnbull on Saturday to develop smart cities through the setting up of a knowledge bank of sustainable urbanisation ideas.
A question was raised during the joint press conference on whether that amount will be enough. Both leaders agreed money was not an issue, but the sharing of experiences will be critical.
“The challenge with smart cities is to make the implementation, and to change the ways in which our cities and our administrations operate … in this case, jointly to be able to work together to inter-operate and to share approaches … which will widen the footprint for our citizens,” said Mr Lee.
“I’m quite sure that as and when specific attractive projects come up, which will happen, those projects will find no difficulty getting funded.”
NO PROTECTIONISTS AROUND THE TABLE
Such deals, as well as the business conferences held on the sidelines of the summit to promote trade and investments between ASEAN and Australia, are nods to trade liberalisation and regional economic integration.
“We strongly believe that a free, open and rules-based multilateral trading system is the key to the region’s growth and prosperity,” said Mr Lee.
Mr Turnbull also observed that there were “no protectionists” around the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit table.
Both sides committed to concluding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by this year. The free trade agreement has 16 negotiating partners - all 10 ASEAN member states, Australia, China, New Zealand, India, Japan and South Korea - and will cover 30 per cent of global GDP. The RCEP has missed three deadlines since talks began in late 2012.
“This will send a clear signal to ASEAN’s external partners and all other countries of our commitment to promote international trade, oppose protectionism, and keep the regional architecture open and inclusive,” said Mr Lee.
Noting that there was “very strong support” for a swift conclusion of RCEP, Mr Turnbull said that if the negotiating countries secure a good agreement, “this would be … an antithesis to protectionism. It would ensure on the back of the TPP-11 that the Indo-Pacific region continues to be the fulcrum of open and free trade”.
In the lead-up to the summit, Mr Turnbull had called protectionism a “dead end”, and called on countries to embrace free trade.
SOUTH CHINA SEA, RAKHINE, NORTH KOREA ALSO ON THE AGENDA
Also on the agenda: The peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea, where ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam are claimant states. Negotiations are ongoing to conclude a Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China.
Mr Lee said that each ASEAN country has its own unique relationship with China, but territorial disputes in the South China Sea pose security and stability challenges across the region.
“This is an issue which we can manage, which we can help to prevent from escalating. But it is not an issue which can, in a definitive way, be solved in any short period of time,” said Mr Lee.
Leaders also weighed in on the humanitarian situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, with the country's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressing the matter at considerable length, said Mr Turnbull. She was also said to have sought humanitarian and capacity-building support from ASEAN and other nations.
“It is of concern to all ASEAN countries, and yet, ASEAN is not able to intervene and force an outcome,” said Mr Lee. But the regional group is working to provide humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands who are affected, Mr Lee said, adding that ASEAN will continue to support efforts by all parties to achieve a long-term and viable solution.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had warned on Saturday that the Rohingya refugee crisis could become a serious security threat for the region, saying that “Rakhine, with thousands of despairing and dejected people who see no hope in the future, will be a fertile ground for radicalisation and recruitment of Daesh and Daesh-affiliated groups”.
Mr Lee said that these are possibilities that cannot be ruled out.
“We will be anxious if there’s any instability … in any of our member countries. We are also concerned as human beings, if there is a humanitarian crisis that has developed, and people’s welfare and lives and safety are at stake,” Mr Lee added.
On the events unfolding in North Korea, Mr Lee said the leaders are “cautiously encouraged” by its commitment to denuclearisation and pledge to refrain from further nuclear and missile tests for now.