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Reader riposte: ASEAN sets the agenda

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COMMENTS

10 June 2009 16:23

Kevin Rudd has found out that you might not be able to do much with ASEAN, but you can do even less without it.

ASEAN realities have reshaped the Rudd bid for a broader and strong Asia Pacific organisation. That was the pivot for my column written immediately after Rudd’s Shangri La speech. The Prime Minister got out a diplomatic trowel and put on several layers of love, extolling the wonders of ASEAN.

Professor Carl Thayer kindly offered this comment on the ASEAN role:

I have just read your analysis of Rudd and his Asia Pacific community proposal. My take is that the PM’s APC/APc proposal was open ended...If the PM has moved on, why host a one and a half track conference later? And if the APC is dead what happens if the US does join the East Asia Summit? Rizal Sukma had also advocated moving beyond ASEAN, suggesting – in my words – a kind of G6 or G8 grouping for the Asia Pacific.

ASEAN is hardly in a position to do anything really positive in addressing the overlap between security and economic issues without bringing on board the major powers. But if ASEAN ‘takes the lead’ it is likely nothing will be accomplished. That leaves the option of the major powers taking the initiative. Some have argued for a G2; that would undercut ASEAN. Is there room for middle power diplomacy? My take is that the East Asia Summit plus the US (and Russia) could become the leading body since it brings together heads of government and state. Progress would be slow and evolutionary.

Consider what has been taken on board and what has been tossed overboard, one year after Rudd launched his Asia Pacific quest. Carl alludes to the fact that Rudd used the Shangri La speech to downgrade from a large ’C’ Community to a small ‘c’ community.

Strange how Australia seems to come to grief on 'Community'. Canberra hit the same obstacle 20 years ago in the creation of APEC. The C in APEC was to have stood for Community. But Asia, not least ASEAN, would not play. Instead, APEC stands rather inelegantly for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation. As Gareth Evans observed, APEC is four adjectives in search of a noun.

Canberra has just been given the same lesson it received in 1989. Asia is certainly in search of community. But when it reaches Community, Asia (and the ASEANs) will determine timetable and naming rights.

Another thing tossed over board at Shangri La was in Rudd’s statement of the obvious: ‘There is not appetite for additional institutions.’ Whatever new regional architecture is created, it will draw on the existing bodies, such as they are: the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and APEC. As the Prime Minister noted in Singapore: ‘No one wants more meetings.’ If there is to be progress, it will be aligning or even joining together these existing structures.

Australia now has four meetings this year where it can conduct Rudd’s ’focused discussion’ on the ’idea of an Asia Pacific community’. The chance for focus will happen at the ASEAN Regional Forum hosted by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers, at the East Asia Summit run by the ASEAN leaders, at the APEC summit hosted this year by an ASEAN member, and finally at the one-and-a-half track conference hosted by Australia (attendees to be announced).

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