Abbott 'to ink strategic agreement with S'pore'

Reported deal set to have a strong focus on security, counter-terrorism

AUSTRALIAN Prime Minister Tony Abbott is expected to conclude a wide-ranging strategic agreement with Singapore during a visit - due to start on Saturday - that is expected to have a strong focus on security and counter-terrorism.

Mr Abbott is apparently seeking to "conclude a historic comprehensive strategic partnership with the island-nation", according to a report in The Australian yesterday. But his office would not comment on the visit.

The agreement would reportedly cover trade and security, as well as research, education, culture and the arts.

Analysts, noting that there will be a strong focus on security and counter-terrorism, also said Mr Abbott will likely hold discussions on the rise of China.

Dr Stephen Dobbs, an expert on Singapore history at the University of Western Australia, said Mr Abbott is likely to use his visit to fit in with his recent domestic focus on combating terrorism and recruits of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group

He is currently pushing controversial measures to strip citizenship from dual nationals involved in terrorism.

"Mr Abbott is beating the drum here very loudly on security," Dr Dobbs told The Straits Times. "I have no doubt that it will be very high on the agenda."

Mr Abbott is scheduled to deliver the 35th Singapore Lecture next Monday. His title for the talk, which is part of an annual series run by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, will reportedly be "Our Common Challenges: Strengthening Security in the Region".

The visit will mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the countries. It will be Mr Abbott's second visit since he was elected in September 2013. He visited in March for the funeral of former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Singapore is Australia's fifth- largest trade partner, with exports and imports last year worth about A$27 billion (S$28 billion). Singapore's investment in Australian property and companies was worth about A$60.5 billion - the fourth-largest source of foreign investment.

Though the two nations have a longstanding free trade agreement dating back to 2003 and close defence ties including an annual ministerial dialogue, analysts believe Mr Abbott will want to focus heavily on forging even closer security ties.

University of Sydney foreign affairs analyst Jonathan Bogais said Mr Abbott wanted Australia to expand its strategic role in the region and bolster - or even act as a "substitute" for - the role that the United States has played in anchoring regional security.

"This appears to be consistent with the Australian government's - and especially Tony Abbott's vision - of seeing Australia as a key security player in the Indo-Pacific region. In some ways he sees Australia as being a substitute for the US," he told The Straits Times.

Dr Dobbs said Mr Abbott will also seek Singaporean perspectives on a range of regional issues, including China's assertiveness in the South China Sea.

A veteran former Australian diplomat, Mr Richard Woolcott, who served in Malaysia and Singapore in the early 1960s in the lead-up to Singaporean independence, said that over the past half-century Singapore has ended up as a more "independent" country, whereas Australia has remained closely aligned in its outlook with the US.

"Singapore is a part of South- east Asia and is very conscious of that. With Australia - while we keep saying we want to play an active part in what has been called the Asian century - our links are still largely with the US and Great Britain."

Analysts, noting that the issue of China is likely on Mr Abbott's agenda, said Canberra tends to take a more hesitant approach to Beijing than Singapore.

"Singapore welcomes the US role in the region but does not fear China," said Professor Bogais.

"For whatever reason, we have a government that does (fear China). There is still a phobia in some ways of Asia, even as Australia grows its trade with Asia."

jonathanmpearlman@gmail.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2015, with the headline 'Abbott 'to ink strategic agreement with S'pore''. Print Edition | Subscribe