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APC: Dead duck or bird with a few important feathers?

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COMMENTS

16 March 2009 09:33

Malcolm is right to argue that the Asia Pacific has long understood what options are on the table for evolving what little multilateral security architecture is now in place.

But the running-on-the spot debate the region has conducted over the past decade is the reason it is now possible to talk about the East Asia Summit as the clear winner in the architecture debate. The reason is that that the US is prepared to open a significant new wing in that structure.

This is an important step. It might even turn out to be profound. Everyone has been talking about it for a long time and, suddenly, with the new Obama Administration, the moment is at hand.

It has been easy to roast The Rudd for the un-ASEAN way he launched his Asia Pacific Community (APC) effort. Yes, of course, he should have done some consulting before he launched. It costs little to observe the niceties. That’s why we have diplomats spread around. But much of the commentary can’t seem to get beyond that valid criticism. Instead of the old Gareth-era charge of ’initiative overload’ from Canberra, we are now criticised for ’initiative naiveté’.

The ASEANs saw ignorance and even arrogance from a foreign policy wonk who should have known better. The counter interpretation to be offered publicly would be that Rudd was driven by a sense of urgency. The private interpretation would be that Rudd was deeply frustrated by an ASEAN that is in the driver's seat but isn’t moving the vehicle anywhere.

Rudd’s sin was compounded by the fact that he launched his Community effort just before flying off to Japan. Here was further proof of the stark fact that Rudd is a Northeast Asianist, not an ASEANist (a long-standing divide in the way Australian diplomats line up).

The ASEAN way has been a magnificent achievement for Southeast Asia. Part of the accomplishment has been to enmesh the region in a culture of constant consultation. End points don’t matter for the ASEANs too much if everyone is talking and making a serious attempt to cooperate. The reason Burma has caused such anger in the ASEAN elite is that Rangoon has exploited the culture but refused to contribute to the game.

There comes a moment, though, when mere process isn’t enough. Even if Rudd had consulted the ASEANs before launch, he probably would have got much the same negative reaction but with a different focus. The response instead would have harped on his presumptive naiveté rather than his rudeness.

The echo of those arguments from last year should fade because of the Obama-Clinton effect. The US has not had to do much to change the game. The US can start to ask a hard question of the rest of the Asia Pacific: what sort of security structure is going to be created through the EAS? That question turns to issues of aim and ambition, not just process.

Almost inadvertently, Kevin Rudd has got to some of this ground ahead of a lot of other players. A poor launch has plonked him in an interesting spot, not far from where a new US President is looking to land.

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