Singapore Pulls a ‘Swift’ One

‘Diplomatic incident’ and ‘Taylor Swift’ are not two phrases often said together. However, during the ASEAN-Australia Summit this week, Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, fielded tense questions pertaining to an exclusive deal for his country to be Swift’s only tour stop in south-east Asia. The deal annoyed other countries in the region, with Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin saying “isn’t what good neighbours do”. Prime Minister Lee simply replied: “[i]t has turned out to be a very successful arrangement”.

Thankfully, the ASEAN controversy largely stopped there, as Australia hosted ASEAN and Timor-Leste in Melbourne to celebrate 50 years of partnership. Australia became ASEAN’s first Dialogue Partner in 1974; since then, each year Australia’s Prime Minister and leaders of ASEAN Member States meet to discuss ways to deepen cooperation. This week’s summit is the biggest diplomatic gathering in Australia since Malcolm Turnbull held a similarly high-profile meeting in 2018.

Image Credit: ASEAN Secretaries-General meet with Australian officials in Canberra, 1974. (National Library of Australia (nla.obj-919321907))

During the summit, Prime Minister Albanese remarked that Australia’s biggest ‘rival’ in the region is ‘itself’. To paraphrase the Prime Minister, Australia runs the risk of ‘shrinking into itself’ if opportunities are missed to deepen ties and engagement with ASEAN and regional neighbours. One in four Australian jobs depend on international trade. Additionally, ASEAN represents 15% of Australia’s total trade and is Australia’s second largest trading partner – in 2022, two-way investment with ASEAN was $248.7bn. To further this relationship, the Australian government announced the establishment of an ASEAN-Australia centre in Canberra, an energy cooperation package, an English-language training program for Timor-Leste, and scholarships and fellowships for ‘emerging leaders’.

Encouragingly,  the ASEAN-Australia Joint Leaders Vision Statement and the Melbourne Declaration reaffirmed their collective commitment to securing peace, stability, prosperity in the region. Calm was also urged among those involved in the ‘increasingly volatile’ South China Sea.

6 March 2024 | Connor Andreatidis, Consultant, Precision Public Affairs

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