Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who was to meet Southeast Asian leaders yesterday, faced pressure to sign a non-aggression pact with the region to dispel concern about his policy of pre-emptive strikes.
Howard has riled Australia's neighbors with tough talk of possible pre-emptive strikes against terrorist bases overseas, widely interpreted to mean Indonesia, although this has repeatedly been denied by Canberra.
ASEAN calls for Howard to sign the deal have grown louder ahead of his debut at the 10-nation group's summit, where he wants to launch talks toward a free trade deal.
"We are encouraging Australia and New Zealand to join us to accede to the TAC [Treaty of Amity and Cooperation] which they have not yet done," Philippine Foreign Minister Alberto Romulo said late Monday.
"We think that it's high time that Australia gives it serious consideration," Thai foreign ministry spokesman Sihasak Phunketkeow said.
ASEAN, which largely sees Australia as closer to the West than Asia, wants assurances about Australia's intentions.
"The way Indonesia sees it, there can be no more efficient and effective way for Australia to dispel misperceptions some quarters may have of its intentions in Southeast Asia than to simply accede to the TAC," Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa said at the weekend.
But Australia insists it is no threat.
"There's no question of attacking Asian nations. We are a threat to nobody," Defense Minister Robert Hill said in Sydney yesterday.
"We are a peace-loving country. We will protect Australians and Australian interests, but we are a threat to nobody. Asian countries know that as well," he said.
Islamic militants have twice targeted Australians or the country's interests in Indonesia in recent years, in the 2002 Bali bombings which killed 88 Australians and in the September bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta.
ASEAN officials stress accession to the non-aggression treaty -- which has been signed by seven countries outside of ASEAN, including China and India -- is not a precondition for free-trade talks.
The pact calls for signatories to commit to "non-interference in the internal affairs of one another," a "renunciation of the threat or use of force" and the settlement of disputes by "peaceful means."
Canberra says this would bar it from criticizing the domestic policies of ASEAN members, for example Myanmar's internationally reviled regime.
Howard insisted Monday the TAC issue remained separate from the trade deal.
"They are two separate issues so we shouldn't confuse the two and that has been made very clear," he said in Sydney.
Negotiations on the trade deal that were expected to be announced yesterday are scheduled to run for two years, after which Australia and New Zealand would then be formally linked with the ASEAN trade bloc during the 10 years to 2017.
The aim of the agreement is to double trade and investment by 2010. Two-way trade in goods and services between ASEAN and the two countries totalled US$34.5 billion and investments reached US$8.4 billion last year.
Their combined annual economic output of US$1.3 trillion is nearly as big as that of China's US$1.4 trillion last year.
ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.