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APc conference evaded the big issue

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7 December 2009 13:51

I was pleased to get an invite to last week's Asia-Pacific community (APc) conference (co-sponsored by Lowy), but a bit surprised too, because I am a registered sceptic about the whole idea. And I am bound to say that I came away after a day-and-a-half's discussion no less sceptical.

It is not that the proposal cannot fly. On the contrary, it seems quite plausible that at some stage the leaders of Asia's major and middle powers, including the US, will meet without the Latin Americans who have crept into APEC, and without the smaller Asian states. This, after all, is the core of the APc concept, and everyone who thinks they will be included in the APc can see at least some merit in it. We all like to be part of an exclusive group. It's just a matter of working out who to exclude.

The harder question, however, is what this group of leaders will do when it meets. On this issue the conference was instructive, but not reassuring. The essential argument that a new forum is needed — advanced by Kevin Rudd, among others — runs like this:

Asia faces many new, more complex and more pressing problems today than ever before. Current regional institutions are inadequate to deal with them. They are all interconnected so they must be managed by national leaders who can take the wide view, and (unstated but implicit) a smaller group of leaders of more powerful states would manage these problems better than a bigger group.

Propositions like this are easy to agree with at first glance, but do not stand up so well to scrutiny. Does Asia face graver problems today than it has in the past? Are current institutions unable to deal with them? Are leaders' summits really an effective way to galvanise action on complex questions? And are smaller, exclusive groups always the best way to make progress? 

Indeed, to look at the matter more broadly, are leaders' meetings really the answer to anything? Have we failed to solve problems like climate change and terrorism because we do not have the right group of regional leaders in the room, or because they are inherently hard? Moreover, the supposedly new problems that Rudd and others listed – the usual list including economic imbalances, environmental worries, transnational threats, WMD proliferation and pandemic diseases — nearly all seem to require global rather than regional solutions. 

Except one. In arguing for the APc, Rudd and others give prominence to the really new, big and uniquely Asian challenge of accommodating the growing weight of China and other rising powers into the regional order. And, as he has in the past, Rudd specifically identified that problem as one of those that the APc could lead the region in addressing.

But here lies a fundamental equivocation in the APc concept. Is this institution supposed to offer new and better ways to deal with today's problems, working within the existing, US-led regional order? Or is it supposed to help build a new regional order that can accommodate China's growing power? When Rudd and others put problems like climate change and economic rebalancing on the APc's agenda, it sounds very much like the first of these. When they talk of China's rise it sounds much more like the second.

APc supporters will no doubt say it can do both. I very much doubt it. My reasons go to rather deep questions about the relationship between institutions and order. This is not really fit fare for a blog post; suffice to say that I think institutions reflect order, rather than create it. Order is created by negotiations between big states in which their relative power largely (not completely) determines the outcome. 

A new Asian order that accommodates both the existing and the emerging great powers will need to be negotiated among those powers, and the rest of us can do little more than encourage from the sidelines and hope they get it right.

Getting it right is profoundly important, but the APc would do nothing to help. Indeed, until a new order has been negotiated, building new institutions like the APc can make the construction of a new order harder because it forces major powers to stake out positions before the negotiations have got properly underway. And as the underlying order changes, institutions built on the old order will soon become irrelevant – just as the Commonwealth is today.

So I don't think the APc will do anything to help address the biggest question in Asia today. The APc is in essence a conservative concept. If it engages the big question about Asia's future at all, it does so by assuming that China's rise is just one more item on the list of workaday regional problems that can be addressed within the current US-led order, rather than a fundamental challenge to that order itself. It embodies the hope that Asia's old ways of doing business can last while fundamental power relativities shift. 

That sounds less like a mechanism to address the problem than a manoeuvre to evade it.

Photo by Flickr user little79bear, used under a Creative Commons license.

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