Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 21:31 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 21:31 | SYDNEY

An Asia Pacific concert by another name


Graeme Dobell

11 October 2011 14:13

An Asia Pacific concert or community of powers is where the region is slowly heading, if we get lucky and get good leadership — but it's time to drop the concert label.

The concert/community outcome is still the desired destination, but to get there, much less sell the concept, it has to be renamed. My picks: the new Asia Pacific system or simply new regional machinery. The concert idea carries too much European history and runs headlong into an increasingly proud and assertive Asia. Around here, 'European' is still the adjective attached to that reviled noun, 'colonialism'. No European Concert need apply.

Talking about machinery or system is prosaic but ditches the history baggage. And it describes what is already before us. A future column is going to be about the extraordinary run of summits Australia is about to 'enjoy': hosting the Commonwealth this month, followed next month by the G20, APEC and the East Asia Summit, plus a visit to Oz by the US President. 

Putting together November's talkfests — the G20, APEC and the EAS — then adding in the ASEAN Regional Forum and the infant ASEAN-Plus Defence Ministers' meeting gives a good picture of the important working parts of the multilateral machinery of the new Asia Pacific system.

Using 'system' or 'machinery' helps step around the baggage carried by 'concert', and even helps reach a bit beyond the much loved Asian discussion of security 'architecture'. As special envoy for Rudd's Community, Richard Woolcott much preferred to talk about regional machinery rather than architecture.

Architecture suggests something permanent and solid — well designed, even — sitting on an established foundation with all the rooms in place and a roof nailed on. We ain't got that. Equally, the Asia Pacific in the 21st century is not going to respond too happily to a 19th century version of power politics. Machinery has a lot of moving parts, and allows for a plenty of further tinkering, alterations and additions in a Heath-Robinson-meets-Bruce Petty manner.

All this is part of my response to the question Rory poses: Does Australia have a strategy for dealing with the new Asia, especially the rise of China and India? Answer: to work, our strategy is going to have to look a lot like that of all the other middle powers in the game, and also answer many of the needs of the big players. And the existing machinery or system is what is going to have to work.

Giving up on using 'concert' is a bit of wrench. I have been a fan for quite a while, standing behind two thinkers I deeply admire: Coral Bell and Hugh White. As she so often does, Coral described the terms of the debate in the most lucid and sweeping terms — process, players and end-point — in her 2007 Lowy Paper talking about a Concert of Powers for the 21st Century. Hugh in his Quarterly Essay went boldly to battle for a 'Concert of Asia' (and has the wounds to prove it).

My support all along, however, has been wimpish, because I have been a concert not a Concert advocate; Australia never has much luck running big C arguments, whether for Hawke's APEC Community or Rudd's Asia Pacific Community. And with a Concert, we hit some of the same rocks.

Shrinking the target to a concert, though, has not done the trick. The problems with the concert have been nearly as strong on the US side as with various Asian audiences. The US doesn't like the suggestion that it must surrender power to others, while Asia just hates the 19th century European baggage.

When throwing the Asia Pacific concert into the mix, I've found myself spending more time talking about how different it would be to the old European Concert than the benefits of a new concert. Indeed, to operate, the new Asia Pacific system/machinery is going to look so different to Europe's Concert of Powers that the name issue gets in the way.

For a start, middle powers expect to have a large say in the emerging system; ASEAN wants to drive key parts of the mechanism. That is a long way from the European model where the big powers were great ones for redrawing maps and gobbling up the territory of weaker states. No wonder talk of a concert can make ASEAN shiver.

A concert is the aim. But the name cannot be the same.

Painting, of the Congress of Berlin in 1878 by Anton von Werner, courtesy of Wikipedia.