Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 12:42 | SYDNEY
Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 12:42 | SYDNEY

Rudd in Asia: One last kick in the guts


Graeme Dobell

30 June 2010 13:22

Speaking in Jakarta recently, I remarked that ASEAN had kicked to death Australia's quest for an Asia Pacific Community. The senior Indonesian analyst sitting next to me immediately interjected: 'Kicked to death by Singapore.'

At the time, I reflected I might be guilty of a Tony Abbott-style oral overstatement; perhaps the line should have been 'kicked into submission'. In any event, by disposing of Kevin Rudd, the Labor Caucus has completed the job so effectively performed by Singapore.

What may have been Rudd's last substantive Prime Ministerial conversation with Asia was with Singapore's Foreign Minister, George Yeo. The Yeo trip was a quiet victory lap, but the experienced and ebullient Singaporean was also in Canberra to apply balm.

No need to deliver further kicks to the carcass of what started as the Asia Pacific Community and then mutated into a conversation about 'AP community'. Singapore's Foreign Minister was happy to endorse the Canberra line about the helpful conversation sparked by Rudd's initiative. The thank-you went along with a restatement of the reason Singapore originally stuck in the boot:

I would say on the big issues, we are almost in complete agreement. There is some question whether in the original proposal, ASEAN was central to it and we, ASEAN, were naturally worried about that. But that was quickly clarified and I think Australia's quite happy to leave ASEAN to discuss how that original configuration should evolve.

Gently put, given that the period when the Rudd initiative was being 'clarified' looked more like a sharp conflict. The outcome is clear — Australia is going to wait for ASEAN. And whatever ASEAN produces will be spun by Canberra as an excellent result which draws on the conversation generated by Rudd. In one of his first interviews as the combined Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister, Stephen Smith told Radio Australia's Linda Mottram that ASEAN is heading towards the objectives Rudd identified during the Community/community contest.

What we wanted to do was to ensure that our regional arrangements were set and correct for the Asia Pacific century as strategic and economic influenced moves in our direction; the rise of China, the rise of India, the rise of the ASEAN economies combined. And the real breakthrough came with the recent ASEAN leaders meeting in Hanoi, where leaders expressly requested the United States and Russia to become more formally integrated within the regional arrangements. And the ASEAN group is now having a conversation about whether the best way to effect that is by expanding the East Asia Summit by those two countries, or having a new group called ASEAN Plus 8. When that emerges, which we're confident it will, then we'll have all of the players sitting around the table at the same place at the same time able to have a conversation, not just about peace and security, but also about prosperity. So we think we are not too far away from achieving a very good practical outcome which meets our objectives.

So whatever ASEAN does will be hailed as meeting Australia's aims. To use the understated phrase of disagreement immortalised by Evelyn Waugh: up to a point, Minister, up to a point.

An earlier column outlined the Singapore approach to creating an ASEAN-plus-8 summit which would convene in the odd years that the US President manages to get to Asia for APEC. The East Asia Summit would continue as a yearly leaders' summit.

At one level, this is just a practical solution to the eternal problem of getting US Presidents to travel to Asia. ASEAN can't be sure that the President will make it to the EAS each year. But the design of an ASEAN-plus-8 separate from the EAS has some deeper architectural assumptions – and flaws.

The Singapore argument is that the EAS could eventually become the vehicle for an East Asia free trade grouping, covering the 10 ASEAN states, China, Japan and South Korea, with India, Australia and New Zealand being expected to opt in as well.

Doing free trade deals with the US is turning into a frustrating dead end for Asia. The US has not been able to legislate the free trade deal it completed with South Korea. Anything broader would be an even harder ask for the US Congress. So not having the US in the EAS makes Singapore's trade thinking easier to contemplate, even if it would be horrendously complicated to execute.

The whole point of the Rudd Community/community conversation was to have everybody at the one table to deal with all the big problems. US membership was central. Creating an ASEAN-plus-8 as well as the EAS would create two top tables, with the US absent from one of the forums.

If the two-table solution comes to pass it will look very different to what Kevin Rudd contemplated. But rest assured that whatever ASEAN decides will be embraced by Canberra. On the Community/community front, as in so many other post-Kevin areas, the Labor Government wants to dispose of the debris, claim victory and move on.

Photo by Flickr user Leonard John Matthews, used under a Creative Commons license.