Japan, Australia and two other Pacific Rim economies joined the rush to court Southeast Asia, agreeing Tuesday to launch free trade talks with the region’s leaders hours after they clinched a momentous market-opening deal with booming China.
The four nations — also including South Korea and New Zealand — signed accords with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations at their summit in Laos to launch talks early next year, aiming for trade pacts within two years.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard stressed that his country bore no ill will toward Southeast Asian nations despite his refusal to heed ASEAN’s calls to join its nonaggression treaty, which he has dismissed as a relic of the Cold War.
“We have no hostile intentions towards anybody in the region,” Howard said.
Some countries in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia, have been wary of Howard because of his comments in 2002 that he reserves the right to launch pre-emptive attacks in countries if terrorists there threaten his citizens.
But the retirement last year of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who had often-icy relations with Howard, brought an improvement in Australia’s ties with Kuala Lumpur, and its first ever invitation to an ASEAN summit.
Mahathir’s successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said Australia will likely be invited again for next year’s summit in Malaysia.
Tuesday’s accords came a day after ASEAN and China signed a pact aimed at phasing in the world’s largest free trade area by decade’s end — a sprawling market of nearly 2 billion people.
The Southeast Asian group’s secretary-general, Ong Keng Yong, said it would expand trade between the regions from about $100 billion this year to as much as $140 billion by 2010.
The agreement not only opens markets, but eases fears that China would be a “strategic bully” in the region, said Denny Roy of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.
“China has also tried to sell Southeast Asia on the idea that China’s economic development is more of an opportunity than a threat to the region,” Roy said. “The prevailing view seems to be that China is so far living up to its claim that it will not be a strategic bully as it grows more powerful.”
The pact aims to bring tariffs below 5 percent in most of the 11 countries by 2010 — giving an extra two years for prized products such as cars, and granting an extra five years for poorest ASEAN members Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam to come on line.
Before closing the summit late Tuesday, ASEAN also adopted a blueprint for economic cooperation with India. Free trade talks with New Delhi began last year and are expected to take another year.
The agreements with China and India reflect desires by Southeast Asia to latch onto economies that are siphoning foreign investment from the region.
Communist Laos — holding its first-ever conference of this magnitude — eased its tight security on the final day of the summit in Vientiane, where dusty roads have been dotted with green-clad troops.
ASEAN members Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam joined host Laos for the summit. Closed-door meetings opened Monday with an ASEAN-only session, followed by summits through Tuesday with partners China, Japan, South Korea and India, Australia and New Zealand.