SYDNEY - For the first time, Australia will be hosting a summit with leaders from the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean), as it seeks to build closer ties with Asean nations.
The two-day summit in Sydney, starting on Saturday (March 17), is seen as a diplomatic coup for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who has won praise for his efforts to focus on ties with South-east Asia, amid concerns that Australia's foreign policy is overly focused on handling relations with China.
Mr Turnbull will play host to nine of the 10 Asean leaders. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte decided not to attend the summit, citing more pressing developments at home.
The meeting presents some tricky diplomatic issues for both Mr Turnbull and the attending Asean leaders.
Analysts have urged the summit to adopt a position in support of free trade, following the recent decision by United States President Donald Trump to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium.
Former Indonesian trade minister Mari Pangestu, now professor of international economics at the University of Indonesia, and Professor Peter Drysdale from the Australian National University, said on Thursday that Asean's response to the rising threat to free trade is its greatest challenge.
They called on the Australian and Asean leaders to issue a declaration that commits to "avoiding retaliation to US protectionism" and to promoting the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
The RCEP is a multilateral free trade pact involving Asean, China, Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan and South Korea.
"As China and the US stare each other down with a potentially devastating trade war on the horizon, it may seem strange to turn to Asean, but it has a central role in the collective response to Asia's present predicament," they wrote in The Australian Financial Review.
The summit is also set to tackle potentially thorny issues such as North Korea's nuclear missile program, the regional terror threat, and China's territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea.
There have also been calls for Asean to address human rights concerns, particularly the treatment of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.
"Myanmar's regional neighbours - including Australia and Asean - must send a signal that crimes against humanity are unacceptable and will not go unpunished," said Mr James Gomez, Amnesty International's regional director for South-east Asia and the Pacific.
Australia has longstanding ties with Asean and became a dialogue partner in 1974, the first country to do so.
Its overall trade with Asean is worth A$93 billion (S$96 billion), more than with the US or Japan. Investment from Asean was worth some A$44 billion in 2016, more than that from China.
In Australia, commentators and officials have welcomed the summit as an opportunity to boost ties with countries in South-east Asia.
"Asean is in our region... it is absolutely vital that we have stability, whether it be economic prosperity or national security, in the region," an unnamed Australian government official told The Australian yesterday.
But some commentators are cautious about overemphasising the potential for greater ties between Australia and the region.
They said Australia's economic ties with South-east Asia, for instance, are dominated by relations with Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
These nations account for two-thirds of Australia's trade with South-east Asia. And Singapore accounts for about 70 per cent of investment from Asean.
Nonetheless, the summit will be an opportunity for both sides to present a united front - particularly on trade - that could deliver a timely message to the world.