Saturday 30 May 2020 | 06:09 | SYDNEY
Saturday 30 May 2020 | 06:09 | SYDNEY

The APc continuing role

17 December 2009 10:51

Richard Woolcott is the Prime Minister's Special Envoy to develop the Asia Pacific community concept.

As host of the APc conference in Sydney last week, I want to respond to Malcolm Cook's piece in The Interpreter. Apart from the apocalyptic title ('The APc's fatal flaws'), Malcolm Cook makes a number of contentious statements. 

In my opinion, the Sydney conference achieved its stated objectives. While it was not a negotiating body, a wide range of interesting and mainly forward-looking opinions, as well as some concerns, were expressed. The discussions were frank and sometimes robust, which we had hoped they would be.

It is illogical to compare, as Cook does, the run-up to APEC in 1989 with current progress towards an APc. Prime Minister Rudd has always regarded this as a step-by-step process over a number of years. The APc concept involves many more countries than APEC did in 1989.

Contrary to Cook's assertion, the Sydney conference was in fact preceded by 'intense private diplomacy'. I visited 21 countries to elaborate the concept to heads of governments, ministers and senior officials. Kevin Rudd himself spoke personally to a number of heads of governments at bilateral meetings, the last EAS summit in Hua Hin, and in Singapore at the APEC conference in November. Our Heads of Mission in the region have also been active in explaining Mr Rudd's ideas.

Initially, Mr Rudd chose not to set out a blueprint for an APc precisely because he regarded the process as a consultative one and wanted to ascertain the views of other relevant countries in the course of developing the concept.

Australia has every right, as part of the South East Asian and South West Pacific region, to suggest policies for the region's future security, as it has often done in the past (eg. the establishment of APEC, the Cambodian peace process and the evolution of the ARF).

Cook's assumption that there is an agreed ASEAN position on the APc, as reflected in the second track conference he attended in Kuala Lumpur, is questionable. ASEAN, as was evident at the Sydney conference and in my own discussions during my Special Envoy mission, does not necessarily have a united view on the APc.

While there is acknowledgement, as Mr Rudd stressed again on 4 December, that ASEAN should have a central role in any new regional architecture, there is also recognition in ASEAN countries that, as an organisation, it needs to be stable and constructive to fulfil this role.

Prime Minister Rudd is responding to incontrovertible change in the region and a wide perception that more effective arrangements are required as the next decade unfolds.

New and forward-looking ideas are often received with some scepticism (as was APEC in 1989 and, more recently, the establishment of the G20). I believe Mr Rudd will press ahead with what is widely seen as a necessary, forward-looking and visionary response to the major changes underway in our region. I do not believe he will be deterred by what Cook describes as a 'backlash', mainly driven by some Singaporean officials and government-linked think tanks.

The attitudes of government participants from a number of key countries (including the ROK) towards a need for more effective regional arrangements are evolving in a positive direction and are on the public record.