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23 June 2010 09:45

Having seen off Kevin's Rudd's vision for the Asia Pacific, Southeast Asia has to confront a tougher task. ASEAN must decide which of its own creations it will anoint to sit atop the Asia Pacific concert. Is it to be the ASEAN-plus-eight or is it to be the East Asia Summit?

A previous column noted Kevin Rudd's 'you win' nod to ASEAN on its ownership of whatever structure will be used to have the community discussion to take the region toward a Community. The Prime Minister conceded the point made explicit by the ASEAN leaders. The ASEAN-plus process, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum are the institutions to be used in 'the building of a community in East Asia.'

And who will do that building? Quoth the ASEAN Leaders: 'Any new regional framework or process should be complementary to and built upon existing regional mechanisms and the principle of ASEAN's centrality.' Translation: It's our game and we're going to run it.

Don't think too hard about the dynamics of Laos joining with Brunei and the rest of ASEAN to tell China, the US, India and Japan how to play nice. Such are the intrinsic problems when trying to do something never before performed in history: middle powers rather than great powers seeking to order the terms of a concert of powers.

As K Rudd has discovered, at this point ASEAN is the only concert-building vehicle in sight. That's why the Prime Minister has welcomed the invitation to the US and Russia to join up to whatever ASEAN decides is appropriate.

The problem for ASEAN is what to do with its victory. Here is where issues of structure and power run into political priorities and willingness to travel. The ASEANs are scratching their heads over the problem familiar to many a society hostess. Oh, the ignominy if they hold the party but the star doesn't attend. Fancy issuing the invite yet finding that the US president, at the last minute, can't fit it into the schedule.

Indonesia and Australia are becoming quite familiar with that 'sorry, can't make it now' call from the Obama White House. ASEAN wants a summit solution that avoids the embarrassment of a presidential no-show. That is why Singapore, backed by Malaysia, is pushing hard for an ASEAN-plus-eight summit, rather than admitting the US and Russia to the East Asia Summit.

The EAS is an established annual leaders' event. As now being proposed, the ASEAN-plus-eight summit would not be annual, but would convene only in those years when the APEC summit is in Asia. Linking ASEAN-plus to APEC would offer some hope that the US president could make it across the Pacific. The ASEAN-plus-eight mechanism will get its first run in Hanoi with a meeting of Defence Ministers in October.

Not all the ASEANs are immediately convinced by the ASEAN-plus-eight logic. Indonesia's Foreign Ministry still favours the view that the EAS must be paramount, and that is where the US president should be asked to sit.

The US is playing cool, if not fey. Washington is waiting patiently for ASEAN to decide what it wants. K Rudd – coming from a very different direction – has arrived at roughly the same place as Washington.

No Godot jokes, please. We're waiting for ASEAN.

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

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