Australia signed a pact with Malaysia yesterday to combat terrorism through intelligence-sharing and training programs -- a move that boosts Canberra's security ties with Southeast Asia.
The agreement means Australia has inked anti-terrorism accords with Southeast Asia's two largest predominantly Muslim countries. Indonesia signed a similar agreement with Australia in February.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and his Malaysian counterpart, Syed Hamid Albar, signed the pact at the Foreign Ministry in Putrajaya, Malaysia's administrative capital.
Copies of the agreement weren't immediately released, but the ministers said it covered information exchange, cooperation in training and education and studying each other's laws.
"The intention is to cooperate in order to frustrate any terrorist activities," Syed Hamid told a news conference.
The two ministers had returned together from an Asia-Pacific security forum in Brunei, where the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes Malaysia, signed an anti-terrorism treaty Thursday with the United States.
Downer said the agreement was part of a network Australia was developing with Asia-Pacific countries to combat terrorism. Australia is expected to sign a similar pact with Thailand soon.
"The struggle against terrorism is going to be a long and a hard one," Downer said. "It's a struggle that crosses many boundaries. It is one that demands that countries of the region, and indeed beyond, work together closely if we are going to be successful."
Downer downplayed the sometimes rocky diplomatic relations between Australia and Malaysia, saying economic and military ties had been strong for decades.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has repeatedly blocked Australia and New Zealand from entering Southeast Asian trade and leaders' forums, accused Australia of colonialist tendencies in Asia, and even mocked the Australian accent.
"You should not overstate the significance of that type of disagreement, as there is so much ballast in the relationship between Australia and Malaysia," Downer said.
"It might make a media story when there is a spat between the two prime ministers, but I don't think it really intercepts the greater weight of the relationship," he said.
Muslim extremism has risen in recent years in Southeast Asia, where links have been established to the al-Qaida terrorist network. Governments are concerned that any instability could hurt investor confidence and threaten economic growth in this region of 500 million people.
In Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, authorities have arrested dozens of militant suspects. Officials say some of the men belong to a radical Muslim group called Jemaah Islamiyah, which Singapore says planned to blow up the city-state's U.S. Embassy.
Australia is the United State's most important ally in the South Pacific, and a regular contributor to U.S.-led military operations, including the one in Afghanistan.
The Australian and Malaysian Governments are to join forces in the war on terror, with Foreign Minister Alexander Downer expected to sign a historic counter-terrorism pact when he visits Kuala Lumpur tomorrow.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad appears ready to put to one side his long-standing objections to Australian involvement in regional diplomacy to allow a formal agreement for top-level cooperation with the Australian Federal Police and other law-enforcement agencies.
Amid region-wide efforts to clamp down on Islamic terrorist cells operating in South-East Asia, Malaysia and Australia will agree to step up their exchanges of intelligence data, allow greater coordination between police and border control authorities, and encourage exchanges of senior police and counter-terrorism officials.
It follows a similar agreement between Australia and Indonesia in February, and means the Howard Government has negotiated counter-terrorism protocols with the two largest Muslim majority nations in the region.
Under these agreements, Australia will help provide specialist training and education programs if requested. But neither arrangement extends to the more politically sensitive issue of military cooperation.
"It is about building a whole new structure of cooperation against terrorism with our neighbours, and opening the doors to much greater agency-to-agency contact," a source close to the negotiations said.
It is believed an almost identical agreement with Thailand is awaiting final approval in Bangkok.
But the agreement between Malaysia and Australia could be especially significant for what it says about the improving tenor of relations between Canberra and Kuala Lumpur.
Although trade, defence and education links have remained solid, Dr Mahathir resents Australia's scrutiny of his human rights record, notably public criticism of his treatment of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
He also argues that Australia, as a Western nation, does not belong in regional institutions, and he has effectively vetoed Australia's inclusion in moves towards greater economic integration in Asia.
Malaysia's new agreement with Australia occurs against the backdrop of much higher priority being given to the war on terror by the Association of South-East Asian Nations. Dr Mahathir has softened his anti-Western rhetoric to play a key leadership role.
In the aftermath of September 11, governments in the region have been eager to allay fears in Washington that South-East Asia has become a hotbed of anti-American extremism.
In May, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines _ the three East Asian nations where militant Islamic groups sympathetic to the al Qaeda network are known to operate _ signed a three-way agreement to fight terror.
This coincided with a visit by Dr Mahathir to Washington, where he signed an agreement on security cooperation with President George Bush.
According to Malaysia's official Bernama newsagency, Washington and Kuala Lumpur have recently held talks on establishing a joint counter-terrorism training centre in Malaysia to instruct regional security services on how to combat extremist violence.
And, in Brunei this week, foreign ministers from all 10 ASEAN member states issued a declaration committing their governments to a strategy to "prevent, disrupt and combat international terrorism".
With US Secretary of State Colin Powell visiting seven regional capitals this week, the ASEAN Regional Forum announced further measures yesterday, including a blueprint designed to choke off funding for terrorists. It will require member states to establish financial intelligence units to track money flows, and to make public the lists of terrorist groups whose assets are to be frozen.