Publication: The Australian
Author: Rosie Lewis

Australia must deepen political ties with Southeast Asian countries to “stop us from being the meat in the sandwich” and bullied by the US and China, former trade minister Andrew Robb has warned amid escalating tensions over the trade war.

Mr Robb hailed the Pacific step-up strategy deployed by Scott Morrison since he became Prime Minister one year ago but said there was a case to shift Australia’s attention “even more” to Southeast Asia. “Those countries are where we should have our biggest responsibility, frankly,” he said.

“We’ve got to work with the world and especially the US and China but if our priority shifted to Southeast Asia, then what we say and do when China does something or when the US does something which affects one another, we need not end up … as meat in the sandwich, being used and ­ab­used to send messages through.”

Mr Robb acknowledged that Australia had great trading relationships with ASEAN countries, but said we needed a much stronger political relationship in the midst of economic instability.

Mr Robb and former Labor trade minister Craig Emerson yesterday joined PricewaterhouseCoopers chief economist Jeremy Thorpe in encouraging Australia to clinch new free-trade agreements in a pre-emptive move against any sharp contraction in China’s economy.

After successfully negotiating FTAs with South Korea, Japan and China during the Abbott government, Mr Robb said he had felt pressure from the US when working on the latter two deals.

He also said he witnessed bullying from the US and China, which were “quite happy to throw their weight around”.

“In many cases, I think they’re really using us as a vehicle to talk to one another,” Mr Robb said. “We’re being used as a pawn so they don’t raise the heat between one another, but they get their message across by the way in which they tickle Australia up.”

Dr Emerson said Australia was already focused on Southeast Asia through deals such as the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand FTA but the status quo was “not working”.

“It’s a disaster. We’re staring into the economic abyss,” he said.