Saturday 28 Mar 2020 | 19:39 | SYDNEY
Saturday 28 Mar 2020 | 19:39 | SYDNEY


Allan Gyngell

5 June 2008 12:27

I joined 500 or so others at the Asia Society’s annual dinner last night to hear Kevin Rudd’s speech. The Prime Minister had two purposes.  One was to place Asia in the centre of Australian foreign policy with a Big Idea to match Bob Hawke’s APEC and Paul Keating’s Leaders Meetings. The other was to prepare the ground for his visits next week to Japan and Indonesia. 

I’m a sceptic about the Big Idea. The Prime Minister is spot on in his analysis that 'There is a brittleness in a foreign policy based only on bilateral relations. To remove some of that brittleness, we need strong and effective organisations'. But to address the dilemma, he proposes setting out on a path that will lead by 2020 to the establishment of a 'regional institution which spans the entire Asia-Pacific region – including the United States, Japan, China, India, Indonesia and the other states of the region' and is able to 'engage the full spectrum of dialogue cooperation and action on economic and political matters and future challenges related to security'. Although that’s not quite the Asia Pacific Union the Australian reports this morning, it means in effect getting agreement on something that looks like APEC, with India added, and transformed from an economically-focussed institution to one which covers the full spectrum of political, security and environmental problems. He proposes keeping all that we now have (ASEAN, APEC East Asia Summit, ASEAN Plus Three) in the meantime. 

Dick Woolcott is being sent out to discuss the proposal and prepare the ground for a possible high level conference of government and non-government representatives (Interesting. Why non-government representatives?). The PM acknowledged the problems but didn’t elaborate. They include how you define the region (do you include Latin America? What about Taiwan?  All the members of ASEAN, including Myanmar?). How do you induce China, with its growing preference for narrower regional bodies like the ASEAN Plus Three grouping, to agree? I am on record as a deconstructionist on Asia Pacific regional institutions. I just don’t think that one big piece of architecture is going to meet all our needs, and that we have to look at different institutions to serve different ends. What matters most is the Leaders Meetings, and preserving its effectiveness, especially if, as seems possible, the global forum, the G8, grows into a G15 from which Australia is excluded. I’ve got great faith in Dick Woolcott’s diplomatic skills, and wish him well, but he is going to be tested as never before. 

By the way, in case everyone has forgotten, 2020 is the year that we have already committed to APEC’s Bogor commitments to free trade in the region coming into effect.

Turning from the future to the immediate, the speech then looked at Australia’s bilateral relations with Japan and India. On Japan, the Prime Minister was clearly making an effort to send reassuring messages after the recent criticism (including by my colleague Andrew Shearer in yesterday’s Australian).  The formulation he developed – 'The relationship between Australia and Japan is a comprehensive strategic, security and economic partnership – and beyond that we have an enduring friendship' — wasn’t exactly elegant but it should satisfy all but the most obtuse. He proposed accelerating the talks on a free trade agreement (good luck) and strengthening our security engagement both bilaterally and trilaterally with the US, as well as on climate change. Whaling was put into perspective and handled rather neatly: 'I am hopeful that we will  be able to find a diplomatic solution to what is an important disagreement among friends'. 

The section on Indonesia was flatter, I thought. The vision was of  'a partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit'.  That didn’t stir my blood.

As a long-time follower of these speeches I thought one of the most interesting lines was the addition of the word 'sustainable' to the familiar phrase that Australia seeks an 'open, stable, peaceful, prosperous and sustainable' Asia. That’s good sense and good policy. We will only get the first four if we also have the fifth.

I also like the Prime Minister’s now familiar commitment to making Australia 'the most Asia-literate country in the collective West'.  It is where one of our most important comparative advantages as a nation will lie over the next fifty years or so.