Scott Morrison will discuss a travel bubble between Australia and Singapore when he visits his counterpart, Lee Hsien Loong, but the high-level talks are expected to produce a political commitment to the idea rather than a firm starting date.
The Australian and Singaporean prime ministers will on Thursday also discuss how to handle China’s actions in the region, with Australia believed to have suggested including language in their joint statement on the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation in the contested South China Sea.
Morrison flew to Singapore late on Wednesday on the first leg of his journey to the United Kingdom to attend the G7 meeting of wealthy developed nations in Cornwall, England, where the recovery from the Covid pandemic and additional action to tackle the climate crisis are top of the agenda.
Talks for a travel bubble were first proposed by Singapore in October but have been on the backburner while Australia finalised quarantine-free travel with New Zealand and the commonwealth sought the opening of interstate travel.
While Australia has been theoretically open to expanding restriction-free travel when it is safe to do so, talks with Singapore have only recently picked up pace, with a focus on ironing out practical details for the operation of the bubble.
These include fixing gaps in coverage of vaccination certificates so all travellers from Australia can prove their vaccination status and determining the threshold for closing the bubble in the event of outbreaks.
Australia’s travel bubble with New Zealand allows each country to independently reimpose quarantine restrictions.
But Singapore’s travel bubble with Hong Kong has seen them agree in advance that the bubble would be suspended if infection rates in either region reach a seven-day moving average of more than five daily unlinked local cases – with similar rules expected to be sought in relation to an Australian bubble.
Both sides are looking to make progress on the criteria that would apply so that the bubble can be “switched on” when both Australia and Singapore are ready.
Increasing strategic competition between the US and China is also likely to feature in the talks, with the leaders exchanging views on how best to handle those developments.
Lee has consistently argued that countries in south-east Asia are worried about being “at the intersection of the interests of various major powers” and must not be “forced into invidious choices” on whether to side with the US or China.
Morrison has nodded to those concerns in the past, using a speech late last year to warn against countries being “forced into binary choices”, but in recent times the Australian prime minister has been seen as increasingly outspoken on China, and before his flight to Singapore he stepped up calls for “a world order that favours freedom”.
Officials have been discussing the shape of a joint statement to be published after the meeting, including the proposed inclusion of a passage about the importance of upholding freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.
It is unlikely to go far as the joint statement issued on Wednesday by the Australian and Japanese foreign affairs and defence ministers, who voiced “serious” or “grave” concerns about a range of issues involving China, including the situation in the East and South China seas, Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
“We share serious concerns about the recent negative developments and serious incidents in the South China Sea, including continuing militarisation of disputed features, dangerous use of coast guard vessels and ‘maritime militia’, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ resource exploitation activities,” the Australian ministers Marise Payne and Peter Dutton said in a statement with Japanese counterparts Toshimitsu Motegi and Nobuo Kishi.
The fallout from the military coup in Myanmar is also expected to be on the agenda for Morrison’s meeting with Lee in Singapore.
The Australian government has, to date, followed the lead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in not ratcheting up sanctions on the junta – in contrast to the approach taken by other major players such as the US.
After the engagements in Singapore, Morrison will travel on to the UK to be a guest at the G7 summit from Friday to Sunday, when the hosts are hoping to coordinate more ambitious action on the climate crisis.
In the lead-up to the summit, the leader of the Australian Greens, Adam Bandt, has written to the embassies of G7 nations in Australia, urging those countries to “shake this government into action” on the climate crisis.
“If the Australian government doesn’t lift its 2030 targets, the G7 should introduce carbon tariffs, applying to countries including Australia, to help support Australia’s clean industries and drive the transformation so desperately needed to protect our country,” Bandt wrote in the letters.
In a speech in Perth on Wednesday, Morrison argued his government was “on the pathway” to net zero emissions and wanted to “get there as soon as possible, preferably by 2050”.
But he omitted some of the prepared remarks that could have been seen as an attempt to push back at the international pressure for additional commitments.
According to a draft version that the prime minister’s office had distributed to journalists in advance of the speech, Morrison was expected to declare that nation states should be “accountable for charting their own path to net zero based on their unique economic structures and energy sources”.
But he did not say that when he addressed the Perth USAsia Centre, and he also left out the line: “Australia does not support setting sectoral targets or timeframes for decarbonising particular parts of our economy or setting false deadlines for phasing out specific energy sources.”
Comment was sought from the prime minister’s office on the significance of the changes.