Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 22:50 | SYDNEY
Thursday 14 Oct 2021 | 22:50 | SYDNEY


Rory Medcalf


5 June 2008 13:30

An ‘Asian Union’ sounds grand and logical. But the early media reports about Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 4 June Sydney speech on regional co-operation were overblown. While it is heartening to see the Rudd Government identifying the need for stronger diplomatic ‘architecture’ in Australia’s Asia-Pacific (or Indo-Pacific) region as a priority, it is hard to identify precisely what he is proposing, or what is all that new about it.

There are already longstanding efforts underway to build an East Asian Community, based either on the ASEAN-3 model (ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea) or the East Asia Summit (which adds India, Australia and New Zealand to ASEAN-3). Admittedly, the Rudd plan would instead be an ‘Asia-Pacific’ community – including the US. But in that case it looks remarkably like what the East Asia Summit might lead to if the US were to join, or what APEC might be if India were to join and China were to allow that organization to develop a fully-fledged security agenda. So I share Allan Gyngell’s scepticism.

Rudd is right in noting that, unlike Europe, the Asia-Pacific region is notoriously weak in its multilateral institutions. It has plenty of fora, but they are principally about talk rather than the sharing of sovereignty, the active prevention and resolution of conflict or the harmonisation of national policies and actions.

And many features of the region work against such solidarity. It has diverse cultures, political systems and levels of development. It is divided by unresolved historical grievances, territorial disputes, strategic competition and mistrust – not to mention a lack of agreement on where the region begins and ends. These are all good reasons – along with, as the Rudd speech compellingly observed, the basic reality that Asia looks set to possess a massive share of the world’s wealth, power and problems – for serious efforts to build institutions for co-operation. 

So it is right for Australia to play its part in this quest. But precisely how?

As I suggest today on Crikey! (subscribers only), one of the big challenges for Rudd and his envoy Dick Woolcott will be to work with or around the many powerful and complicated interests that other countries in the region now have in existing pieces of the architecture (China prefers ASEAN Plus Three, Japan prefers the East Asia Summit, and so on). 

There is substantial merit in trying to fix one of the existing regional houses rather than building a new one. As I have argued before on this blog – back when Alexander Downer had his final diplomatic sling in Singapore last November – there is a case to try to bolster the East Asia Summit. Bring in the US, persuade the ASEANs to share their chairing rights with others, and use the annual leaders’ meetings as a place to cut through the cautious positions of national foreign ministries and perhaps even kick-start some practical co-operation. And then let APEC, with its motley membership including Latin American countries, take a back seat.