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Howard opens Malaysian trade talks

Financial Times

Howard opens Malaysian trade talks

By Virginia Marsh in Sydney

8 April 2005

Australia and Malaysia are to begin formal negotiations on a bilateral trade deal as part of efforts to improve their sometimes tense relations. The negotiations were announced in Canberra yesterday after talks between John Howard, Australia’s prime minister, and Abdullah Badawi, the first Malaysian prime minister to visit the country in more than 20 years.

The leaders stressed their determination yesterday to build on what they said was a strong bilateral relationship, but there were reminders of their continuing differences.

The visit comes 18 months after Mr Badawi replaced Mahathir Mohamad, the regional leader most consistently critical of Mr Howard and Australia.

Nevertheless, Mr Badawi pointedly refused to back Australia’s attempt to be included in the east Asia summit due to be held this year by the Association of South East Asian Nations and China, Korea and Japan the Asean plus three bloc.

This week Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian president, on an official visit said he would press for Australia to be invited to the summit, which Canberra sees as an important step in strengthening its engagement in Asia part of a broader push to deepen its economic ties in the region.

Mr Badawi did not rule out an invitation but said it was a matter that needed to be discussed within Asean.

Opposition parties in Australia say Mr Howard has reduced the government’s chances of an invitation by refusing to sign a non-aggression pact put forward by the Asean states last year, a refusal he repeated publicly yesterday in front of Mr Badawi.

Australia already has bilateral trade agreements with New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand and the US, and is expected to announce the launch of formal negotiations with China this month.