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We need an Asia Pacific Council

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COMMENTS

31 October 2008 11:09

Guest blogger: Brendan Taylor is a lecturer in the Graduate Studies in Strategy and Defence program, ANU.

Claims the G20 could become the basis for a 21st century concert of powers are fanciful. I worry about such suggestions because similar thinking already appears to underlie the PM’s all-encompassing Asia Pacific Community proposal. This proposal has been gathering some influential supporters in recent weeks. But I remain unconvinced that the region’s complexity can be accommodated within a single, all-encompassing institution.

I agree with the PM, though, when he says that greater attention needs to be given to how Asia’s institutions come together to produce a viable regional ‘architecture.’ The trouble is that the Asia Pacific Community will just add one more institution to the mass of existing groupings. Rudd still has time to avoid this. But he needs to call not for a Community, but an Asia Pacific Council.

The Asia Pacific Council would function like a regional board of directors. Not unlike Rudd’s proposal, it would be an over-arching body — a ‘super-institution’ sitting directly above Asia’s existing multilateral groupings.  Rather than competing directly with one another, as they currently do, these institutions would instead vie for the attention of the new Council. The Council, in turn, could request them to undertake specified tasks on its behalf. The Council would thus provide the sense of order and purpose that is currently missing from Asia’s institutional landscape, but which ‘architecture’ in any genuine sense of the term implies.

Who would comprise the Asia Pacific Council? As the region’s great powers, the US, China, Japan and India would be there. Russia should have a seat at the table and its presence would add to Chinese comfort levels. ASEAN should also be given a guernsey. Its acquiescence to the new grouping is critical and Southeast Asian representation is a must.

How would the Council function? Heads of Government would sit on the new body (here it would be left to ASEAN to decide who represents it, and how its vote is cast). The Council would meet annually, as well as during periods of severe regional crisis such as the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Member countries would finance Council activities, including a secretariat and funding pool designed to incentivize the institutions sitting beneath it. Like the UN Security Council, members would also have veto rights. To give the new body ‘teeth’, however, a minimum of two vetoes would be required to defeat any resolution.

Would there be a role for Australia? As initiator, Canberra could assert a right to Council membership. We could claim to represent the interests of Oceania. This would be a tough case to make, though, with other ‘middle powers’ such as Canada and South Korea standing on the sidelines. So we might offer instead to host and possibly even chair the Council. Australia is non-threatening to all proposed Council members and is thus uniquely positioned for this role. Even without voting rights, keeping such company clearly serves Australia’s interests.

The proposal itself is more practical than Rudd’s Asia Pacific Community. By leaving Asia’s institutions intact, the Council accommodates the region’s substantial diversity. It also addresses the argument that institutions are irrelevant and that it is great power interactions which matter most in international politics. The Asia Pacific Council is essentially an Asian ‘concert of powers’ with institutional characteristics.

Most important of all, while this new formulation will require the PM to recast his Asia Pacific Community idea, he can at least retain the APC abbreviation.

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