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Canberra\'s Clouseau strategy

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5 January 2011 15:33

Aaron Connelly produces the CogitAsia blog for CSIS Washington and has written for The Interpreter on Indonesian politics.

Graeme Dobell's post of yesterday offers up another argument by the Australian diplomatic corps that their then Prime Minister's ill-fated Asia Pacific community proposal wasn't such bad diplomacy after all.

Graeme's source isn't the first to make this case — back in July, as the post-mortems on the Rudd premiership poured in, some tried to argue that Rudd had 'initiated' the conversation on the Asia Pacific community which ultimately led to an expanded East Asia Summit. I heard the same argument at DFAT headquarters. The Lowy Institute's Andrew Shearer and Malcolm Cook quickly sought to prevent this narrative from taking hold, noting that Asia Pacific community building has been underway for decades, the subject of an interminable series of conferences, papers and study groups.

In Graeme Dobell's version, a 'top diplomat' notes that the unusual lack of consultation with regional stakeholders prior to the APc's announcement in fact saved Canberra a good deal of grief:

...One of Australia's top diplomats has argued to me that it might have been even worse if everybody had been properly sounded out before the Community idea was made public. The ASEAN response, he suggests, would have been strongly negative in the preliminary diplomatic consultations. And then Australia would have compounded the offence by going public, even though it knew ASEAN was opposed. At least, having not talked to anyone beforehand, Canberra could express mild surprise at the response it got. Call it the diplomacy of not doing formal diplomacy.

A manoeuvre so unaware of its own brilliance it would be worthy of Inspector Clouseau.

But the Labor advisors and professional diplomats are right. Although Rudd did not start this conversation, he did upend it. And recent history suggests that the only way to goad ASEAN into making progress on regional architecture is to threaten to remove it from the driver's seat of regional institutionalisation. The East Asia Summit's existence, after all, was the result not of the years of painstaking consensus-building among the ASEAN-3 states through the East Asia Vision Group and East Asia Study Group, but the prospect that ASEAN would be made to share leadership of the Summit with the -3 states.

At the ASEAN-3 Summit in Vientiane in November 2004, another green premier mere months into office, Malaysia's Abdullah Badawi, upended the slow process of institution-building by announcing that he would host the first East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur during Malaysia's chairmanship of ASEAN the following year.

This announcement would probably have been tossed aside by a majority of ASEAN nations as non-binding and out of step with the established process had not Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao intervened to declare his satisfaction with Badawi's plans. So satisfied was Wen, in fact, that he volunteered on the spot to host the second EAS in China.

The thought of an EAS chaired every other year by a non-ASEAN state so alarmed ASEAN governments that they quickly scrambled to reassert their leadership. In order to return ASEAN to the centre of gravity in the new institution, ASEAN invited India, Australia, and New Zealand to join the new group and declared that the East Asia Summit would be hosted annually by the ASEAN chair, not any outside power.

Three years later, Rudd's APc initiative has had the same effect. In threatening to dislodge ASEAN from its leadership role in regional institution building by raising the prospect of non-ASEAN leadership of the region's pinnacle institution, Rudd caused Southeast Asian governments to scramble to recover the initiative. Their flagging interest in their own institution, the East Asia Summit, was reinvigorated by the thought of being outflanked.

Months of conversation followed in ASEAN capitals about the inclusion of the US. When the East Asia Summit convenes in 2011 with the Washington as a full member, it will represent significant progress toward the vision 'for 2020' outlined in Rudd's speech to the Asia Society in Sydney just three years earlier.

Was Rudd clumsy' Perhaps. But he was, even if inadvertently, also highly effective.

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