In a decision that could take the shine off his role as the "deputy sheriff" of the region, Australian Prime Minister John Howard appears to be on the verge of signing a nonaggression pact with other East Asian nations.
The move, once unthinkable for Mr. Howard, is a prerequisite for an invitation to attend the East Asian Summit, a weighty new regional group that meets in Malaysia this December. Howard, a strong ally of President Bush, had previously dismissed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, or TAC, which commits members not to attack each other, as an outdated concept.
Some observers also suggest Howard is reluctant to take a step that could be seen as curtailing - at least symbolically - Australia's security clout in the region.
But Aldo Borgu, program director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra says the government shouldn't worry so much about the implications of the nonaggression pact.
"The government should just eat crow and sign because the treaty is really symbolic in nature and if any member's national security was threatened at any stage, they would not hesitate to ignore the treaty," Mr. Borgu explains. "No one seriously believes that these countries won't fight with each other when it comes to the crunch, but in Asia, symbolism and face-saving plays a big part, and Australia must realize that."
Other members of the group - the 10 nations of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian nations, plus Japan, South Korea, and China - have all signed the peace pact and are preparing for the upcoming summit. The new group will formally link Southeast Asia to the economic powers of China, Japan, and South Korea for the first time. Everyone wants a piece of the action.
Howard was invited to attend its summit for the first time last November. India, which has also been invited to the East Asia summit, signed the treaty of nonaggression in 2003 at the second ASEAN-India summit in Bali. Regional neighbor New Zealand has also agreed to sign. The United States, however, has noticeably been left out of the equation.
"Australia usually puts a premium on the US being engaged in Asia, but a grouping such as this, which might have political clout in the future as well, is something Canberra can't afford to ignore," says Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Australia, however, wants guarantees before it agrees to sign the treaty. Howard is negotiating for full participation in the summit process and not merely inclusion at the inaugural meeting in December.
Australia also wants recognition of its security alliance with the US as defined in the ANZUS treaty, which commits Australia to come to the aid of the US if it is attacked.
A top national priority remains reaching a free-trade agreement with China, a factor that could complicate relations with the US.
Indeed, Australia's trade with China has quadrupled in the past 10 years and has become this country's third-largest trade partner. Last year, Australia ex- ported AUD $11 billion ($8.4 billion) worth of goods to China. Two-way trade is valued at more than $36.8 billion.
"Beijing has a lot of clout in who becomes a member and it will be watching Australia's relationship with Japan very closely," explains Aldo Borgu of ASPI. Despite his desire to court China, Howard recently commented that Japan remains Australia's warmest diplomatic relationship in Asia.
Some critics in Australia wonder why Mr. Howard has been dragging his feet on the TAC.
Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper that "Other US allies, including South Korea and Japan, have signed this treaty without difficulty. It has always been open to Mr. Howard and Mr. Downer to follow their examples. What they have said so far is 'we can't sign the treaty' [because we are an ally of the US], which has always been nonsense."
Analysts say that the East Asia summit - touted as the main trading rival to the US and EU - supercedes the ASEAN regional forum, which deals with security issues, and APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation).
Professor White says that Australia getting involved in a group led by China that does not include the US is very significant. During a speech in Sydney in April this year, Howard urged evenhandedness when dealing with the US and China over crucial matters such as Taiwan.
This, White says, is making the US administration unhappy. "Howard has appeared to lurch a long way to China and risks being pulled back by the US. This might result in angering China. Diplomacy has not been handled well with the US."
The building of a new strategic alliance in the region is only one of the issues that has the potential to create tension with the US. The recent refusal by Washington to sign a new antinuclear treaty to ban the production of fissile material also threatens to cause discord.
"Our challenge in the future, especially if we join the East Asia Summit, is that we can't be seen to be defenders of the only world super power," says Borgu. "We must work toward a more-nuanced relationship with Washington than before."