Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 02:57 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 02:57 | SYDNEY

Asia Pacific Community: An idea, an envoy and ASEAN


Graeme Dobell

15 October 2008 13:44

The Rudd Government is re-living an old Australian experience: you can’t do much with ASEAN, but without ASEAN you can do even less. The ASEAN factor is centre stage in the early efforts to flesh out Kevin Rudd’s big idea – the creation of an Asia Pacific Community.

But as well as fleshing out, there’s a bit of reviving to do. The ASEAN commentariat declared the Rudd policy balloon 'dead in the water' (if it’s possible for balloons to drop below the surface). The former Singapore ambassador, Barry Desker, now an ASEAN second-track elder, used the 'dead in the water' line when visiting Canberra in early July. In an interview with me, Desker was explicit in his view that ASEAN silence meant rejection of a presumptuous Rudd effort.

BARRY DESKER: My own view on this is that the proposals...would always be best received in the region if they are put...first through consultation with the region and a consensus building processes attempted. I think in this case, there was an element of surprise and it may be well overlap with existing projects to create a regional security architecture.

GRAEME DOBELL: How did Australia's prime minister get it wrong?

BARRY DESKER: I don't think it's a question of getting it wrong. I think it was more a question of being over-enthusiastic and wanting to probably have something which would attract attention on a visit to the region.

GRAEME DOBELL: Was East Asia offended that Kevin Rudd bought this idea, as you put it, out of the blue?

BARRY DESKER: No political leader has indicated this so far and I don't think that given the politeness is part and parcel of regional approached to diplomacy, you would ever find such as reaction publicly made by governments in the region. But I think much more important is a need for Australia to understand the process of diplomacy in the region and how effective Australians approached could be to agree to Australian influence on decision-making in the region.

GRAEME DOBELL: If no Asian leader has shot it down, why do you think in fact that the idea was dead almost as it was delivered?

BARRY DESKER: I have seen no Asian leader support the proposal.

But two can play at this game of deciphering the inscrutable: Australia is taking silence as meaning that the idea has not been rejected. One Canberra perspective is that Asia has moved from 'quiet puzzlement and outright scepticism' to an acceptance that this idea should not be allowed to go away. 

Enter, at this point, Richard Woolcott, a former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. With Woolcott, you take the smooth with the smooth — he's the classic diplomat with a distinct Australian flavour. Having served as Bob Hawke’s envoy around Asia to mid-wife the birth of APEC in 1989, Woolcott is trying to work the diplomatic magic twice. He has already done the first leg of the envoy mission – visiting New Zealand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Thailand only missed out because it’s a bit difficult talking to 'government' in Bangkok at the moment.

The second round this month involves South Korea, Japan and China, with the Philippines also looming. India is talking about dates for a Woolcott visit early next month, and he has to get to the South Americans ahead of the APEC summit. Woolcott told me that he 'can’t finish the whole exercise until early next year.' But by the time of the two big heads of government meetings – the East Asia Summit and the APEC summit – Australia wants to have 'some playback on what people really think.'

Woolcott is gently dismissive of Barry Desker’s body in the brine image, reflecting the fact that his first round was essentially about engaging ASEAN:

My reception has been warm with a lot of interest in what Rudd is thinking about in the long term. Nobody is saying, "Why is Australia doing this? Wasn’t it presumptuous of a new Prime Minister throwing a new idea on the table?" People are very interested, very prepared to discuss how to get a situation where all major issues – not just trade and economic and investment decisions, but political issues and strategic issues – how to bring them all under a comprehensive umbrella.

The original APEC creation route is being followed. Try to get the ASEANs interested – or at least prepared to withhold a veto. Then move on to the biggies – the US, China and Japan. And, outside the current APEC structure, the other essential giant, India. The timetable is implicit in this Woolcott interview with Jim Middleton.

There seems to be a lot of interest in discussing the Rudd idea, but much less enthusiasm for creating a new institution. Partly, this is just the normal ASEAN demand that it must be in the driver’s seat for regionalism. ASEAN is not interested in wiping the slate clean and starting again because it would not be centre stage for a new effort. So the discussion is about the role and future of the existing kaleidoscope: APEC, ASEAN, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN-dominated East Asia Summit and the Six-Party Talks.

Rudd, like Hawke nearly two decades ago, was initially criticised for springing the idea on the region. There is one key difference. In 1989, Hawke was building on a lot of thinking and diplomatic consultation already undertaken by Japan. Working in Southeast Asia at the time, I remember that one of the strongest initial comments as Woolcott visited the ASEAN capitals was about Australia making the case for what was really a Japanese idea.

Rudd, by contrast, launched his Asia Pacific Community concept just as he was going to Tokyo to repair bridges, to offer some assurances that he wasn’t going to be the Manchurian candidate. Without Japan doing much of the heavy lifting this time, the need for some initial acceptance from ASEAN becomes even more important.