Friday 29 May 2020 | 04:58 | SYDNEY
Friday 29 May 2020 | 04:58 | SYDNEY

The APc fatal flaws


Malcolm Cook

11 December 2009 16:11

Over the last week, I have been consumed by discussion (or, more often, long and rambling monologues) around PM Rudd's Asia-Pacific community (APc) initiative and the question of Australia and regional institutions. I first attended the Asia-Pacific community conference here in Sydney and then I flew off to be part of the Australian delegation to the Australia-New Zealand-ASEAN dialogue in Kuala Lumpur.

It is not a week I would wish to repeat, but each gathering did emphasise two separate and serious problems for the APc and Australia's regionalist urges, which are brought out even more when one compares the run-up to APEC in 1989 to the APc initiative's short and so far largely unsuccessful existence.

The Sydney conference over the weekend (which the Lowy Institute was involved in) emphasised the first problem. Such government-funded conferences (and speechifying by leaders on big new foreign policy ideas like the APc) work best when preceeded by intense private diplomacy to gain concrete support for the idea before it is announced and then discussed.

For a country the size of Australia (not small but not big), located near but not in Asia, gaining prior support for your regional ideas from major Asian states with similar strategic outlooks (say Indonesia or Japan) is particularly advisable. This was the APEC story.

In the case of the APc, it seems that speechifying and conferencing are seen as feasible alternatives to intense diplomacy. Yet so far, no capital beyond Canberra has fully bought into the APc initiative, despite many sharing the geo-strategic concerns underpinning the idea. From the very beginning, the APc has been seriously undercut by bad policy planning and implementation in Canberra. This problem is growing, not diminishing.

The dialogue in Kuala Lumpur, in which the Australian delegation was subjected to a couple of offensive anti-APc culturalist tirades, highlighted the second problem. In 1989, ASEAN voices railed against the impertinence of the idea of Australia (and Japan) suggesting a regional organisation that wasn't subservient to ASEAN. However, with the early support of Jakarta and a lack of ASEAN alternatives, APEC succeeded. Singapore even agreed to host the APEC Secretariat free of charge.

This time, things are different. The commitment of ASEAN governments to 'ASEAN centrality' in East Asian and Asia-Pacific regionalism has grown, even if their willingness to adequately fund the ASEAN Secretariat to allow ASEAN to play this role has not. Ironically, Canberra has helped fund some of this gap by supporting the ASEAN Secretariat in ways its members governments do not.

Moreover, ASEAN now has both the ASEAN-3 (which includes China, Japan and the ROK) and the ASEAN-3-3 (also called the East Asia Summit; membership includes Australia) to offer up against any idea on regionalism that does not emanate from within ASEAN or which pays insufficient deference to ASEAN. The ASEAN-3 option also allows ASEAN-based critics of the APc to threaten to exclude Australia from 'Asian' discussions. 'If you annoy us, as you have done, we will threaten to focus our attention on the Beijing-friendly ASEAN-3 at the cost of the ASEAN-3-3.'

The clumsy way the APc initiative has been prosecuted has both deepened ASEAN's epistemological fears of irrelevance and the cogency of their ASEAN centrality backlash. If Rudd and DFAT had gained support for the APc from Jakarta and even a couple of other ASEAN capitals before announcing it, the ASEAN-based backlash that has come to dominate much of the discussion of the APc could have been precluded or at least muted.

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