Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 17:35 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 17:35 | SYDNEY


Rory Medcalf


21 November 2007 15:08

In what could well be his swansong abroad as Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer is sacrificing some of his fast-diminishing electioneering time to represent Prime Minister John Howard at the East Asia Summit (EAS), being held today in Singapore. 

This is welcome news. Putting aside the question of whether Mr Downer’s presence in Australia would make a difference to this Saturday’s election outcome, it would have been downright embarrassing for Australia to send representation below the level of a senior minister to a leaders’ forum that Mr Downer and his Department worked hard to get this country into just two years ago.

The EAS deserves Australia’s support.  In the long run, it is the logical choice to be the pre-eminent summit where the region’s important countries are represented, where leaders can exchange ideas, and where efforts can be made to turn strategic visions for the region’s future into some semblance of co-ordinated action.  But right now it is a new and struggling forum, with two seasoned rivals.

 The so-called ASEAN-3 body — the Southeast Asian nations along with China, Japan and South Korea — is forging ahead. As well as a leaders’ meeting it has working dialogues on everything from currency swaps to tourism to energy.  Many observers see it as a vehicle for Chinese influence. This view will be reinforced by the satisfied tone of Chinese press coverage of yesterday’s ASEAN-3 summit, although reports that ASEAN-3 has now definitively been anointed as the vehicle for building a regional ‘community’ (including in free trade) are probably overblown.   

Meanwhile, dear old APEC lumbers on. It has done good work in trade liberalisation, and has more to do.  But as a leaders’ meeting it is stale. Asian countries have no great enthusiasm for it, except as a place to try to get the US Presidential ear (if they can change the subject from Iraq and terrorism for a moment). APEC’s membership is motley: it mixes Asia and Latin America to no great purpose, and excludes India despite that rising Asian power’s deepening eastward interests.

The East Asia Summit has got the right membership — almost. It comprises the Southeast Asians, China, South Korea and Japan as well as India, Australia and New Zealand. What it needs is Washington on board. This is not a fanciful notion: there is practically a standing invitation. Certainly China would not relish an EAS with American membership — for that matter it probably doesn’t much love India’s or Australia’s involvement either. But Beijing will have to live with the EAS however it evolves, because this meeting is of ASEAN born, and China is stuck with its sugary rhetoric that everything ASEAN does is good.

A touted highlight of the APEC summit that brought Sydney to a standstill in September was a declaration on climate change and energy security. Today’s East Asia Summit, too, is expected to focus on these intertwined issues, and will presumably make its own grand and non-binding announcement, this time including India as well as China. It will be interesting to see how much credit Mr Downer claims (or can claim) for that.