Saturday 30 May 2020 | 06:24 | SYDNEY
Saturday 30 May 2020 | 06:24 | SYDNEY

AP community: Whither ASEAN?


Graeme Dobell

2 December 2009 10:44

Other items in this Asia Pacific community series are on the APc concept paper, the text of the paper, Japan, the US, APEC, and Asian architecture.

Australia is both stroking and shaking ASEAN in the discussion of an Asia Pacific community. The Canberra line is that ASEAN has a central role in the dialogue over an APc, but ASEAN has no God-given right to control the agenda. Getting a balance between these contradictory sentiments is just one of the tasks confronting the one-and-a-half track conference on the APc in Sydney this week.

When Kevin Rudd launched his Community quest last year, Australia was prepared to build right over the top of ASEAN. Indonesia would be at the top table, but the rest of ASEAN might not make the cut. The cold blast from Southeast Asia meant Rudd had to resize and redefine his hoped-for design. Australia would do community building as a step towards Community. And big expressions of affection for ASEAN were delivered by the Prime Minister.

The original tension, though, remains. Australia sees ASEAN as central but not necessarily in control. For a detailed account of how this debate has run since June last year, see an excellent paper just posted by Dr Frank Frost.

The terms of the tussle are also discernible from the website just launched by Foreign Affairs for the Sydney conference. On the site, Kevin Rudd opens the discussion with what has become his central argument: 'As yet, there is no single institution in the Asia-Pacific region with the membership and mandate to address comprehensively the challenges ahead.'

The Rudd invitation to the region to think bigger thoughts is linked to a warning about the chances of things going wrong: 'As a region, we cannot passively stand by with full knowledge of the challenges we will face and simply hope for the best...My view is simple: either we shape the future, or the future shapes us.'

Beyond the Rudd welcome page, the discussion starts to build. Some three dozen papers have been commissioned and many are already on the site. The ASEAN dimension is a fascinating mixture. In the overview paper on ASEAN's role in Asia Pacific multilateralism, the former Philippines President, Fidel Ramos, argues that to deal with an ever larger China, the region must move from a Pax Americana to a Pax Asia Pacific.

He describes the new regional entente cordiale 'as the logical successor to the Pax Americana that has enforced stability in the Asia-Pacific region for decades. Unlike the "American Peace" — which is at bottom imposed by US military force — an "Asia-Pacific Peace" will be the peace of virtual equals.'

Singapore's Tommy Koh argues that ASEAN is still best placed to lead the way to this peace. He says that Australia's original idea was to replace ASEAN with a core group of the eight largest countries in the Asia Pacific: the US, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Indonesia and Australia. Now, Koh says, Canberra has seen the error of its ways:

Although Australia has withdrawn the idea, it is useful for us to reflect on the unique role which ASEAN plays in Asian regionalism. All the big countries of the region would like ASEAN to continue to play the role of convener, facilitator and catalyst. Why? Because ASEAN is neutral, welcoming and has a good track record of nurturing such institutions. Given the rivalry between the big countries, it would be impossible for any one of them to replace ASEAN. The idea to replace ASEAN with a G8 of the Asia Pacific is both impractical and a violation of the Pacific ethos of equality and consensus.

A similar Singapore perspective is offered by Simon Tay, who worries about 'a Directorate of Asia driven by the larger Asian and Pacific powers in collaboration and dialogue with he US, not a true community of the region – which has many smaller and medium sized nations.'

From China, Professor Li Shaoxian comments that Australia's early soundings were seen as giving too much emphasis to Indonesia rather than to ASEAN: 'This caused discontentment from other ASEAN countries, which were suspicious that Australia had a divide-and-rule plot.'

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