Closer economic partnership for S'pore, Australia

Australia has lived up to the pledge of its new government to focus on Asia, and the shift will strengthen in the coming years with new trade deals and enhanced exchanges, including with Singapore, its foreign minister, Ms Julie Bishop, told The Sunday Times.

"We've certainly lived up to the promises that PM (Tony) Abbott made in opposition and our focus will be more on the region," she said in an interview yesterday.

Since the prime minister came into office last September, Mr Abbott's administration has sealed free trade agreements (FTAs) with Japan and South Korea, repaired relations with Indonesia damaged by spying revelations and is in the "final stages" of talks with China on a bilateral FTA, Ms Bishop noted.

Last Friday, foreign, trade and defence ministers from Singapore and Australia announced the two nations will upgrade ties to a new comprehensive partnership under the 10-year Project 2025.

Over the next year, senior officials will flesh out what will be needed to transform the bilateral FTA into a closer economic partnership. Also on the cards is deeper cooperation in foreign affairs, defence and civic exchanges.

Ms Bishop said the step forward had been called by Mr Abbott and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at their meeting last October. The leaders will sign off on Project 2025 next year, when both countries mark 50 years of formal relations.

Singapore-Australia trade reached S$25 billion last year, compared to S$12 billion in 2003 when the FTA was signed.

At least 100,000 Singaporeans have studied at Australian schools and Singapore soldiers hold routine exercises there.

Ms Bishop noted that Singapore is also a founding partner of Australia's New Colombo Plan (NCP), a signature foreign policy initiative which sends Australian undergraduates to live and study in the region.

The Australian ministers were in Singapore to attend the Eighth Meeting of the Singapore-Australia Joint Ministerial Committee.

Under Project 2025, in the economic sector, the two sides will seek to integrate their financial markets and boost two-way investments in agriculture and resources, including in northern Australia, among other initiatives.

Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang said last Friday: "Australia has plans to develop its northern territories, including Queensland, and I think there are a lot of business opportunities to take advantage of in that area."

Both countries will also build an alliance between their aerospace and aviation industries and work towards an open skies agreement. In foreign affairs, they will step up collaboration in regional and international issues, including cooperation in ASEAN and the East Asia Summit.

PM Lee will attend the G20 Summit in Brisbane in November at Mr Abbott's invitation.

Both countries will also strengthen defence cooperation, add new exchange programmes and cooperate more closely to fight terrorism.

At the people-to-people level, besides the NCP, there will be more exchanges on arts and culture and women's issues, among others.

Ms Bishop said officials were looking at a working-holiday programme for young Australians and Singaporeans to work in each other's countries, as well as improved labour mobility.

The "new era" in relations is part of Australia's intention to be more deeply engaged in the region, said Ms Bishop.

"It's our neighbourhood, where our future lies, where we can make a positive contribution to a peaceful, prosperous, stable and secure region."

This article was published on Aug 24 in The Straits Times.

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