FEATURE: The road to an Asia Pacific community

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Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will host a regional conference on December 4 and 5 in Sydney on his proposal for an Asia Pacific community.

Radio Australia’s Canberra correspondent Linda Mottram looks at whether the idea will come to anything.

If ever there was an event showing how quickly previously solid ground can shift, the global financial crisis must surely have been it.

Suddenly, the world’s financial system was on the brink of collapse. The biggest of big names in finance, like Lehman Brothers, had shattered leaving behind a trail of destruction. Everything that had been certain was no longer. And the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the post-war institutions charged in part with promoting international economic co-operation, were powerless, exposed as outdated and unresponsive.

Facing ongoing scepticism about the merits of the Australian Prime Minister’s Asia Pacific Community vision, Kevin Rudd’s special envoy on the idea, retired diplomat Richard Woolcott, points to the global financial crisis to make a point.

“I think Mr Rudd would say there’s a synergy between that situation and the political and security situations, that the institutions established after World War II to deal with political and security issues, including the U.N. need to be updated and improved to meet the great changes that are taking place,” Mr Woolcott said.

He was speaking ahead of a conference, “The Asia Pacific: a community for the 21st century,” to discuss the Rudd vision for the regional architecture.

The two-day gathering in Sydney of political figures, academics and business leaders from around the wider Asia Pacific region – a so-called one-and-a-half track conference – will be co-chaired by the executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Dr Michael Wesley, and one of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s most high profile former diplomats, Madame Ton Nu Thi Ninh, who now presides over the founding committee of the planned Tri Viet University.

Conference discussion will include how Asia works, the outlook to 2025, lessons of regionalism from around the world and how well the current proliferation of Asia Pacific institutions work.Watch Cyberbully (2015) Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

The outcome will not be a new regional institution. All players stress that the Rudd vision requires a long, careful process. There should be a conference report and Mr Rudd wants the next step to be a meeting of regional leaders, though this decision will not fall to the Sydney meeting.

“I would think we would reach general agreement on two particular points – one is acknowledging that there is a major shift in economic influence and political and strategic weight underway from the Atlantic to the Pacific,” Richard Woolcott said.

“And secondly I would hope there’d be general agreement that we need the best possible arrangements to deal with these challenges.”

Community based on cooperation

When Kevin Rudd first announced his vision in June 2008, he spoke of the need for an Asia Pacific community that spans the entire region, including the United States, Japan and China, India, Indonesia and the other states of the region. It should be able to engage in dialogue, cooperation and action on economic, political and future security challenges. It should encourage a sense of community based on cooperation, he said.

And he pointed to the European Union as a broad example.

There was some derision and criticism that Mr Rudd had overstated his case, particularly with the reference to the European Union. But Mr Rudd was not deterred and sent Richard Woolcott on a sweep of the 20 countries the Australian Prime Minister saw as being the key players to address the emerging issues as he saw them.

Some failed to see the merits of his case. Singapore was the source of some of the loudest criticism, the city-state being defensive about the place of small states in regional institutions, such as the place its carved out for itself within the Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN.

With several more Rudd speeches devoted to promoting the idea, and with Richard Woolcott’s consultations complete, the Australian foreign minister, Stephen Smith, says there is “a very strong consensus now to have the discussion.”

And Canberra is stressing that the Rudd vision is a long term one, looking out to 2020 or 2025, though Mr Rudd’s dates seem to have shifted out a few years from 2020 named in his June 2008 speech, to the more recent mention of 2025 as a target date.

Regional interest

Conference co-chair, Dr Michael Wesley also says there is a new interest in the region in examining the institutional situation in the Asia Pacific.

“In the past 18 months to two years there has been a realisation that there will be issues of maintaining stability and order in the region while new powers rise and existing powers get used to them,” he said.

“And there is within the last six to 12 months a growing questioning about the adequacy of existing institutions to actually handle the issues of power transition that we’re going to face in the decades ahead.”

Critics though say Mr Rudd has had to water down his plan in order to win wider engagement from the region.

“Last year it was about a strong, multilateral, E.U.-style security institution,” said John Lee, of the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.

“Currently its really just about consultations as to what the future environment might need. So its really been watered down quite a lot in order to get some sort of limited buy-in from Asian countries.”

Enthusiasm, acceptance or confusion?

China has been enthusiastic from the start. It sees an opportunity for new recognition as an equal, or even a great, player in the region. But John Lee says he does not detect any strong backing in the wider region, citing recent comments from Indonesia, Singapore and the United States expressing confusion over and even disdain for the idea.

Advocates say Indonesia is moving towards greater acceptance of the idea and that Singapore has moderated its view. But there is still an air of caution. In his paper for the Sydney conference, K. Kesavapany, director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore reiterates the issue of inclusiveness, both for small states and non nation-state actors like Hong Kong and Taiwan. He also notes that the existing Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, APEC, faced no constraints at its meeting in Singapore just this month discussing a variety of topics beyond economics and trade. And he encourages Australia to put its “its weight, its energy and ideas” behind the “worthwhile, emergent” Trans-Pacific Partnership, for which the United States has voiced strong support.

“There’ll always be a strong support in the region for economic regionalism,” said John Lee, from the Centre for Independent Studies.

“This is something that Asian countries have always wanted. But when it comes to security regionalism, I don’t detect any strong backing at all.”

He adds that does not think Mr Rudd’s idea will produce a regional security institution.

“The irony is that the whole reason why Prime Minister Rudd put forward the A.P.C. in the first place was that there was a belief that there weren’t strong multilateral security institutions in the region,” he said.

“Now that Kevin Rudd has significantly watered down expectations its really indistinguishable from anything that’s currently existing in the Asia Pacific region and in a sense that undermines the whole logic of why you need even more discussions in the first place.”