Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:36 | SYDNEY
Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:36 | SYDNEY

Getting the regional structure right does matter


Sam Roggeveen


16 June 2008 17:22

Hugh White has two lines of attack against the PM's Asia Pacific Community proposal. Let me address them both.

First, I take Hugh at his word that the Rudd Government did not do the intellectual and diplomatic spadework necessary before the PM announced his Asia-Pacific Community idea in Sydney on 4 June. Hugh is closer to Canberra's foreign policy sausage factory than I, and others have made the same observation. The news that Mr Rudd's envoy, Richard Woolcott, knew nothing of the initiative until just hours before it was announced also supports the view that the whole thing was underdone. But that in itself should not be enough to damn the proposal. If the initiative is a good one on its merits, and has enough supporters, it can recover from a poor start. The more important test will be what resources and political capital the government throws at the initiative in the near future.

Second, Hugh says he opposes Rudd's proposal because 'I do not think it is an effective way to address the real risks and challenges we face in Asia'. But that's not quite the argument he makes.  He doesn't attack Rudd's formulation specifically, but argues that the form, function and composition of any piece of regional architecture is a secondary issue:

...what really matters is how countries get on, and especially how big and powerful countries get on with one another. It is the attitudes and expectations they bring to the forums that determine what gets agreed and what doesn’t. The forums themselves have at most a marginal effect. Does anyone really believe that strategic competition is growing between the US and China because they have not found the right shaped table to sit down at yet?

That logic would tend to make the long debate over UN reform redundant. Who cares if membership of the Security Council does not reflect today's balance of power, or if the General Assembly is disfunctional? If all that matters is the attitude countries bring to the table, such structural issues are irrelevant. Now, I'm not arguing that improved structure would overcome the biases the parties bring to a negotiation, but bad structures can inhibit, and good ones can help. Who knows, if the forum is right, the participants might even change their attitudes and expectations, though Hugh seems to think events must unfold in the reverse order:

...before we can build forums or institutions that work effectively to create the kind of peaceful Asia we all hope for in the Asian Century, the region’s major powers are going to have to start accepting that they have to deal with one another on a rather different basis from the way they have been operating for the last few decades. [Emphasis added]

But if China, Japan and the US are to make the painful concessions Hugh and I both want in order to create a sustainable regional order, won't those changes occur only after they sit around the (right sort of) table together? In fact, wouldn't that be the entire point of getting them around the table?