Tuesday 21 Aug 2018 | 08:07 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 21 Aug 2018 | 08:07 | SYDNEY

The roll of honourable failures


Graeme Dobell

4 January 2011 14:27

Kevin Rudd joins a list of Australian leaders whose proposals for Asia Pacific organisations have sunk. Other names on the honour roll include Gough Whitlam for his Asia Pacific Forum and Malcolm Fraser for his effort to create an Asia Pacific regional branch of the Commonwealth. Add to the list Gareth Evans' imagining of the East Asia Hemisphere.

Rudd is in good company — another denizen of Canberra prepared to think about Asia. In 2008, he advocated a new institution – the Asia Pacific Community — to reflect Australia's interests via a new structure to give the fullest expression to regional needs and aspirations, and to confront growing fears.

No shame in trying – pity about the execution. Rudd sprang the Community on the region with no preliminary consultation and got public cries of alarm and private hostility. A complete lack of secret preparation is a funny way to do diplomacy.

But one of Australia's top diplomats has argued to me that it might have been even worse if everybody had been properly sounded out before the Community idea was made public. The ASEAN response, he suggests, would have been strongly negative in the preliminary diplomatic consultations. And then Australia would have compounded the offence by going public, even though it knew ASEAN was opposed. At least, having not talked to anyone beforehand, Canberra could express mild surprise at the response it got. Call it the diplomacy of not doing formal diplomacy.

As previously noted, Rudd gave a nod of surrender to ASEAN's success in seeing off his Community idea in its original form. The community Australia now endorses exactly replicates the East Asia Summit, with the US and Russia added in.

The Rudd effort is different from that of Whitlam or Fraser. It will not sink without trace. The issues are too vital for vessel to be completely lost, even if it must sail under different colours. More community building must take place in Asia. The dangers Rudd identified are real and everyone knows the perils. The existing structures in Asia will have to grow and adapt. New bits must be slotted in. The shift must be from soft to hard diplomacy. That community effort will continue.

It will not, though, carry a Made in Australia label. K Rudd will not be able to sign the canvas as did R Hawke with APEC. Rudd is certainly present at the creation. And having started with the summiteers, he now gets to serve the vision as one of the lead sherpas. It’s just that Rudd has had to accept that this community/Community will be built by Asians and run by Asians.