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Great Australian foreign policy speeches: APEC's creation, by Bob Hawke

Great Australian foreign policy speeches: APEC's creation, by Bob Hawke
Published 14 Aug 2014 

Michael Fullilove began this series on great speeches about Australia's place in the world with two sets of five speeches. Over coming days I'll add three to this list. The first, by Prime Minister Hawke, was delivered on 31 January 1989

The oration on Asia's future was both cautious and visionary, and it produced one of the great Australian foreign policy achievements. The prose, though, was not great.

Perhaps you can't expect too much polish from a speech on trade policy. Especially when the writing finished at about 4am on the day it was to be delivered to a luncheon of the Korean Business Associations in Seoul.

The last-minute writing effort was because Australia's prime minister thought 'the footsteps of history' sounded ominous, plus he wanted to make a splash on a tour through Asia. As always, political need dances with policy demands. Hawke was going to roll the policy dice to propose the creation of a new Asia Pacific organisation.

The speech was the spark for APEC, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, which had its first ministerial meeting in Canberra within the year.

Hawke called for the creation of a government-level edition of the second track vehicle, the Pacific Economic Co-operation Conference, founded by Australian and Japan in 1980. The suggestion (which seems modest enough now) was for an Asia Pacific version of the OECD. Yet at that moment in 1989, APEC was not something Asia could have created for itself — not Japan, South Korea or ASEAN, and certainly not China. 

The speech was an expression, in trade-speak, of Hawke's imagining of an Australia deeply 'enmeshed' in Asia's future. APEC could be a regional expression of the unilateral liberalisations that the Hawke Government had made its central domestic agenda.

The idea, as unveiled, was portrayed in defensive and fearful terms, rather than glowing language. The fear was of the cracks appearing in the multilateral system because of the failure of GATT negotiations. Asia needed to respond to the trade blocs being created in Europe and North America. Here is Hawke mapping his aims: [fold]

First, effective regional co-operation can greatly improve the chances of success of the Uruguay Round and could thereby give a vital boost to the liberalisation and therefore the preservation of the GATT-based trading system. The GATT system now faces its most crucial test. The Montreal impasse, essentially due to lack of progress on trade liberalisation in agriculture, must be overcome. If the Uruguay round fails, the underlying tensions which will have caused this failure will corrode the essence of the GATT system. We must work together to save the GATT system. The region's role will be critical given its strong growth, reliance on trade and growing world importance and responsibility...

Second, we must be prepared openly to discuss obstacles to trade within our region. From Australia's point of view, the success of the newly industrialising economies is an enormous opportunity, for us and for the whole region. Others see this very success as a threat, and it has led to frictions in trade relations within the region and beyond. There is undoubtedly room for dialogue and cooperation on this issue.

...The third area in which we could benefit from regional cooperation is through identifying the broad economic interests we have in common. We should try to investigate whether through co-ordinated Policy making we might better capitalise on the extraordinary complementarity of the economies in the region...

Before I leave this topic, I must stress that my support for a more formal vehicle for regional co-operation must not be interpreted as suggesting by code words the creation of a Pacific trading bloc. Australia's support for non-discriminatory multilateral trading solutions in the GATT framework is clear, long-standing and unambiguous.

Not a bloc, but certainly something that would be more than the OECD. APEC tapped powerful currents in the Asia Pacific and fundamental Australian interests.

The initiative was launched with scant preparation or consultation with key regional leaders; Hawke was going to ask for forgiveness, not permission. There was no certainty that having floated the idea of a regional ministerial meeting, Australia would be able to make it happen, particularly as the US was initially excluded and the concept cut across ASEAN's view of itself as the paramount regional organisation.

The sketchy details of Hawke's vision had been conjured up by officials on the plane flying with the PM and put into words during the all-night writing effort. In politics, a stuff-up can be as likely as a well-planned plot. Elements of APEC's birth illustrate a third category: fortunate happenstance, when an idea flourishes because of the alchemy of timing, history, luck, and personality, and lots of frantic follow-up pushing. APEC was something Asia needed. The region might not be able to talk openly about its strategic problems, but at least it could discuss trade.

The Hawke speech did not name intended members, but journalists traveling with the Prime Minister were briefed that Australia would consult initially with Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Southeast Asia. The line on possible US membership was that it was 'not for Australia to decide who is in and who is out.' This approach produced diplomatic fireworks in Washington. Looking back over his time as foreign minister, Gareth Evans said one of the most unnerving moments of the job had been 'having the mark of Zorro laid on me by (US Secretary of State) Jim Baker at our first meeting in 1989 when he was told that Bob Hawke's concept of APEC — as he had outlined it at that stage in his Seoul speech — didn't include the United States.' Baker later said he was incensed that Australia had not consulted the US but he 'accepted at face value their explanation that they were worried that if it included the US that ASEAN would be less likely to sign on.'

The reality was that Japan could never have signed up to a grouping that excluded the US, and Hawke's memoirs are explicit that he always wanted the US in. But the US spat meant the Seoul speech did the first thing a big proposal needs — it got plenty of attention from everyone in the Asia Pacific.

Image by Flickr user thenoodleator.

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