Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 01:10 | SYDNEY
Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 01:10 | SYDNEY

Institutions and power


Hugh White

17 June 2008 10:31

As usual, Sam has spotted the weak point in my position. I had argued that Rudd should not waste his time and credibility by proposing half-baked new ideas for new forums like his aspirational Asia-Pacific Community. He should focus instead on trying to mobilise changes to the fundamentals of the relationships between major powers that are essential if Asia is to accommodate the rise of China (and eventually India) peacefully. But Sam is at least half-right when he responded yesterday that it is important to build forums institutions too, precisely because they can help bring about the kinds of changes in relationships between key players which we both agree are needed. 

We are in chicken-and-egg territory here. As Sam says, good forums and institutions can help to transform relationships, as the EU (which Rudd himself is taking as an exemplar for Asia) shows. Clearly the evolution of the EU since the 1950s has helped transform the relationship between old enemies like France and Germany to the point that the use of force between them is unthinkable, and indeed the appeal of the EU metaphor for Asia’s institutions is that we should all aspire to see that kind of transformation Asia’s major-power relationships too.

But equally, as the EU metaphor suggests, building cooperative forums and institutions requires that some very important and basic principles have already been adopted between the key players before much progress can be made. The EU emerged from tough times which taught a harsh lesson: that preserving peace between major powers is the absolute priority in international affairs. Easy to say, but hard to turn into practice as the foundation for international relations unless you are willing to conform to some basic principles. Those principles essentially involve unconditional and mutual respect for one another’s equal status as major powers. Unless everyone who matters accepts this, forum-building can be more likely to widen differences as to narrow them. Indeed, the shape of forums and institutions can itself become an adversarial issue. For example, China’s resistance to Japan becoming a permanent member of the UNSC — and America’s apparent indifference – precisely reflect both countries’ refusal to acknowledge Japan’s legitimate status as a great power. And look at the fuss over the East Asian Summit.

Which leads me to think that I may still be half-right too. Frankly, I do not think these essential preconditions for effective security institution-building yet exist in Asia. That is why the alphabet soup of regional multilateral forums is so unrewarding. Major powers can cooperate on individual issues like North Korea, but they cannot yet hold a sensible discussion about the future power structure in Asia, because they continue to start from fundamentally incompatible positions, and none of them is yet convinced that those differences are not worth fighting over. Until we get some movement on those fundamentals, efforts to build new forums to bring them together may only entrench and amplify competitive attitudes, not assuage them. So my message to Mr Rudd is, if he really wants to help build a peaceful Asian Century, he needs to start by talking to each of the major powers about their attitudes to the others, and leave the organisation of new forums until there is a better chance that they will agree on fundamentals. 

Ah, I know what you are going to say now. 'What? Australia talk to China, Japan and the US about their relationships with one another? How can we do that?'  Well, it is a big ask: we do not have much experience of this kind of diplomacy – at least not since Alfred Deakin. But no issue is more important to Australia’s future, and no one will look after our interests if we do not. So the real question is: 'What can Australia do to maximise our influence?'  This should be the kind of challenge Rudd is comfortable with – real activist middle-power diplomacy, if you like. Any galah can float an idea about a new forum, but it takes statesmanship to talk the real issues. Rudd missed his chance to take up this challenge in Tokyo last week, as he did in Washington and Beijing on his earlier trip. To me, this is surprising and disappointing, because I think Rudd has what it takes to do this very well.