Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 01:49 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 01:49 | SYDNEY

APc: Starting what has already started


Malcolm Cook

20 October 2009 10:13

Last week I was at a conference in Singapore on the future of regional security architecture. From the discussions held and my own deliberations about them, I arrived at five thoughts on the Rudd Government's Asia Pacific community (APc) initiative: two not so good, two potentially good and one that questions the whole idea of the APc.

Not so good

  • It seems clear that many in Singapore have still not bought in to the initiative and Australia's middle power activism.
  • More than 16 months after Rudd's 4 June 2008 speech launching the initiative, I still don't really know what the APc is, a problem faced by all the participants at the conference who spoke up about the APc (though it seemed that most, if not all, participants had heard of it). I'm happy that I'm not a DFAT officer in the region trying to explain what the APc is, what it is not, and how it is an improvement on what is already going on. A recent contribution by Richard Woolcott on the East Asia Forum blog will help a bit on this score.

 Potentially good

  • Intellectually, ASEAN centrality and the APc are not in conflict. They are actually quite complementary. They share the premise that the future security of non-major powers (middle or less) in the region will be shaped significantly by the interactions of the major powers at a time of power redistribution, and believe that non-major powers should attempt to influence these major power interactions through regional institutions.
  • Hatoyama's East Asian Community (note the big C), which still seems to exclude the US, caused a positive 'Hatoyama shock' among foreign policy watchers in Beijing. This could lead more countries (other than Australia) to insist that any regional security body or overarching regional forum needs US participation. Hatoyama's Community idea and the concerns about what a 'more independent' Japanese foreign policy actually might even encourage the US to play a more active role in regional architecture building, beyond signing the TAC. The oft-maligned APEC may play a key role here, given that it will be hosted by Singapore this year, Japan next and the US in 2011.

The kicker

In his attempt to clarify what the APc initiative is and why it is an idea 'whose time is coming' (by 2020, according to Rudd's 4 June speech), Richard Woolcott notes that 'As Rudd has said, a major aspect of his initiative was "to begin the conversation about where we need to go" to strengthen cooperation in the Asia Pacific region.' Woolcott also states that:

The objective is to see a meeting at heads-of-government (HOG) level of the six major regional countries – United States, China, Japan, India, Russia and Indonesia – and other countries in the Asia Pacific region to discuss in a congenial atmosphere how best to handle the challenges which our region is likely to face.

There are already a range of institutions in the Asia Pacific region dealing with various issues. The main ones are ASEAN, APEC, ASEAN-3 (the 3 being China, Japan and South Korea), the East Asia Summit (EAS, which includes Australia, New Zealand and India), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the Shanghai Dialogue.*

So why should we be suggesting additional arrangements?

The problem is that none of the existing institutions has the mandate, the membership or the ability to deal comprehensively with all of the economic, political and security issues that Kevin Rudd has in mind. For example, APEC does not include India and its mandate is primarily economic. The EAS does not include the United States and Russia. While the ARF does include all of the principal countries, it is widely seen as being too large, with 27 countries; it does not meet at HOG level; and when a serious regional issue arose, such as North Korea’s nuclear capability, it was handled by a new arrangement, the Six Party Talks, although all six countries were members of the ARF. So there is a clear need for more effective arrangements in the future, especially to deal with political and security issues.

My problem here is that the conversation the Prime Minister says he is beginning has actually been going on for years. The related discussion — about getting around the poor appetite for a new formal regional body by reforming one of the existing ones (eg. the US and maybe Russia joining the East Asia Summit, or India joining APEC) — is also not new.

So it's a bit rich to claim to be starting a discussion that has been going on for a long time. Moreover, the APc initiative, by adding more noise and scope for misunderstanding to these discussions, may well delay their conclusion. The APc initiative may actually retard what it is trying to advance. On this point, I share many of Colin Heseltine's concerns.

* Point of clarification: I think the reference to the Shanghai Dialogue is a mistyping of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, held annually in Singapore.