Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 01:26 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 01:26 | SYDNEY

AP community: The concept paper


Graeme Dobell

30 October 2009 08:44

The conversation on an Asia Pacific community is entering a new phase. Last weekend's East Asia Summit has given enough of a nod to Kevin Rudd for him to claim acceptance of his call to talk. The game is launched.

Rudd had a win at the Summit merely by gaining a significant bit of the four hours of formal time the leaders had together. The first two hours of the EAS were devoted to the global economic crisis and climate change. In the second two-hour block, Japan and South Korea drove the discussion on North Korea and some time was devoted to Burma. But Rudd was given the opportunity to put his case for building stronger regional architecture. His presentation drew comments from the leaders of Singapore, China, Vietnam, Japan and New Zealand.

There were no negative comments. In this game, that amounts to a summit nod which can be parlayed into something of a mandate. The nod is defined by its limitations: it is agreement for more talks about regional architecture. Certainly, it is not a nod for any particular course of building.

The limited terms of Rudd's initial approach are set out in a concept paper, 'Towards an Asia Pacific Community', completed by the Prime Minister's special envoy, Richard Woolcott on 12 October.

The four-page paper was given to embassies in Canberra last week ahead of the EAS. The paper is due to be published in the next couple of weeks on the website to be created by Australia's Foreign Affairs Department to support the one-and-a-half track conference in Sydney on 4-5 December. Woolcott will chair the conference to run what he calls 'a regional conversation'.

The paper's heading proclaims the Rudd vision: a Community. The paper itself follows the Woolcott innovation, and talks throughout about an APc: an Asia Pacific community. The goal by 2020 is a Community. The idea is to get there via discussion of 'community'.

The concept paper starts by noting the 'major shift in strategic weight' to the Asia Pacific but points to 'the high risk' of instability because of the 'rate of growth, change and internal interaction in the region.' The next section, on The Existing Institutions, says 'there is no single institution in the Asia Pacific region with a membership and mandate to address comprehensively both economic and strategic challenges.'

The examples of Europe and ASEAN are then considered. Woolcott writes that what Europe did in the first half of the 20th century is a 'stark reminder of how badly things can go wrong' without effective architecture and nations with the will to use the machinery:

Europe has now found its solution along just these lines – an effective architecture and the will to work cooperatively. But it has built a uniquely European architecture, predicated on history and cultural characteristics unique to Europe. The Asia-Pacific region, which is much less compact and more diverse, will have to devise its own architecture, based on its own history and cultural characteristics.

The purpose of Australia’s APc initiative is to launch a process of dialogue – a regional conversation – to make a start on collectively designing an overarching and effective regional architecture, and on engendering a stronger sense of the need for a region-wide will to work and plan cooperatively and in as coordinated a fashion as possible. The groupings and institutions already in place in the Asia Pacific region are making valuable contributions to the region’s stability and prosperity and could themselves become the building blocks of an Asia pacific community. But none of them as currently constituted represents a coherent focal point through which all of the strands of the regional dynamic can be drawn together at a meeting of the leaders of the key regional countries.

Apart from APEC, the institutions which are judged as not yet up to the mark are all built on and by ASEAN — the ASEAN-3, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum. This backhander for existing institutions, especially ASEAN's, is followed by a lot of strokes for the ASEAN model:

APEC’s mandate is economic, and its membership is so wide as to be unwieldy.The ARF has no leaders’-level meeting, can deal only with security matters, and many believe it is too large and has made insufficient progress since its inception. Meanwhile, ASEAN, APT and the EAS are each, to varying degrees, insufficiently representative of the Asia Pacific region to be said to constitute an APc.The EAS is most representative, and has a leaders’ meeting, but does not include some key countries. 

ASEAN, as a subregional grouping in the Asia Pacific, highlights the importance of developing the right institutions at the right time: it has been crucial in the transformation of South East Asia from a region of strategic conflict into one of cooperation and consensus. Australia believes the time has now come to extend the vision that drove formation of ASEAN to the wider Asia Pacific region. An Asia Pacific community could be seen as a natural broadening of the processes of confidence, security and community-building led by ASEAN.

Woolcott lists what he describes as the key findings from his consultations with 21 countries:

  • A high level of interest in the APc proposal.
  • 'Strong recognition' that current institutions do not provide a forum for all leaders to discuss the full range of economic, security, environmental and political challenges.
  • Little appetite for creating new institutions in addition to the existing forums: ASEAN, ASEAN-3, the EAS, APEC and ARF.
  • ASEAN's involvement in regional institutions is 'crucial'.
  • A keen interest in further discussion on the Asia Pacific community proposal.

The Prime Minister's special envoy concludes with three 'crucial' propositions on how an APc can advance the interests of all countries in the Asia Pacific:

  1. An APc will ensure the process of regional economic and financial integration continues, and that 'the region as a whole strives for a market-driven regional economy that is open to the world.'
  2. An APc will nurture a culture of dialogue and collaboration at the leadership level to deal with emerging strategic competition: 'The first steps should promote region-wide security building measures. Eventually – just as ASEAN has been able to build a degree of strategic congruence among countries beset with historic rivalries – an APc will help build a sharper sense of common regional strategic interest across all of Asia, on top of helping to ensure that regional relationships do not become adversarial.'
  3. An APc will be used to deal with climate change, water and food security, non-proliferation, illegal people movements, transnational crime and terrorism:  'As with more traditional security challenges, such as territorial disputes, the objective would not necessarily be to reach a single region-wide position, but to use the mechanism of regional consultation to help advance solutions be they global, regional or bilateral. As with strengthening strategic stability, it will be the habit of consultation at the highest level that requires nurturing: not because it will solve all problems but because it can make the search for solutions easier and diminish the risks of miscommunication, miscalculation and of descent into crisis or conflict.'