Thursday 09 Apr 2020 | 23:54 | SYDNEY
Thursday 09 Apr 2020 | 23:54 | SYDNEY

Rudd Asia plan lacks conviction


Hugh White

16 June 2008 09:26

Sam is right to say that Rudd’s vision of an Asia-Pacific Community would – if it got anywhere — help address the concerns I raised in Friday’s op-ed about the trajectory of major-power relations in Northeast Asia. He can therefore reasonably challenge me to say why I am so unenthusiastic about the PM’s diplomacy. There are two reasons.

First, I do not believe he is serious about the whole thing. Everything that Rudd has said and the way he has said it about the Asia-Pacific Community suggests that this was an idea dreamed up on the run to provide story lead for his Asia Society speech and a news peg for his trip to Japan and Indonesia. If this was a serious policy proposal, we would have seen evidence of deep thought, careful preparation, detailed exposition and patient diplomacy – and key regional players would have been sounded out well in advance. It looks to me as if none of this happened. There seems to be a pattern emerging here, because the same is true of the nuclear disarmament idea Rudd announced in Japan a few days later. Let me stick my neck out and offer a prediction: in six months both ideas will have disappeared completely from sight. That is why I call them ‘strangely meaningless’: because it is meaningless to announce what purport to be major policy initiatives without doing any of the work needed to develop, promote and realise them, and it is strange, and sad, to see our government doing foreign policy this way.

Second, I don’t much like the Asia-Pacific Community idea, even if Rudd is serious about it, because I do not think it is an effective way to address the real risks and challenges we face in Asia. Let’s leave to one side a host of questions about the appropriateness of taking the EU as an exemplar (though I can’t help but wonder, for example, whether Mr Rudd is ready to promote free movement of peoples across national borders in his Asia Pacific Community, as they have in the EU). Let’s even leave to one side the deeper question of whether Rudd was thinking of his Asia Pacific Community as a forum (like APEC) or an institution (like the EU): he seemed confused on this, as he used both metaphors, but probably he had in mind a forum that might one day grow into an institution.

The most important question then is whether the best way to start building a peaceful future for Asia is by building new forums, or in some other way. Forums are fun, which is why diplomats and politicians tend to focus on them – the alphabet soup of ASEAN plus 3, ARF, Six-Party Talks and all that. But 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?

So let’s get real: 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. To build Rudd’s vision, the US will have to start treating China as an equal, China will have to start treating Japan as an equal. These are big concessions, which will not easily be made, and so far there is little sign that they will be. Helping to mobilise these fundamental changes in relationships between major powers is the most urgent issue for Asia, and an immense challenge to Australian diplomacy. But nothing is more important for us. 

And Japan? Sam says I ask nothing of Japan. I don’t think that’s right. As I think I made clear in my op-ed on Friday, stable major power relations in Asia will require Japan to accept a closer relationship between the US and China, and hence give up the comfortable assurance that the US will always back Japan, right or wrong, in any dispute with China.  For Japan that is a very scary prospect, but the alternative – a systemically adversarial relationship between the US and China – is even scarier. These are the issues that will do most to shape Asia’s future, and these are the issues that Rudd should have been addressing in Tokyo last week. His bogus Big Ideas were simply a distraction. Worse, they may erode his credibility, and hence his credentials for serious diplomacy on real issues in future.