Features | Politics | Oceania

Dreaming of an Asian EU

Australia’s new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is happy to consider a rough model along such lines. His target year for establishing it is 2020. On June 4, a keen Rudd sketched a few ideas for the Asia Society Australasia Centre in Sydney.

By Binoy Kampmark for

It is hard to envisage: a seamless political and economic area in the Asia-Pacific region, where mobility is assured and military and trade interests are bound by genuine agreement. In short, something akin to the European Union, an order established by the Maastricht Treaty. The features: a common market shared principles and modified sovereignty; where freedom of movement in people, capital, goods and services is guaranteed.

Australia’s new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is happy to consider a rough model along such lines. His target year for establishing it is 2020. On June 4, a keen Rudd sketched a few ideas for the Asia Society Australasia Centre in Sydney.

First, the necessary doffing of the hat to an old ally. “Our alliance with the United States is the first pillar of our foreign policy and the strategic bedrock of our foreign and security policy.”

Second, a need to bolster the United Nations, a body mauled and scorned by the governments of the Coalition of the Willing in their invasion of Iraq. Third, the importance of providing some directions on “the regional architecture of the wider region.”

So, what do we have on the cards? An Asia-Pacific union of sorts. Rudd’s speech on June 4 to the Asia Society Australasia Centre provides a few clues. “The European Union does not represent an identikit model of what we should seek to develop in the Asia-Pacific, but what we can learn from Europe is this – it is necessary to take the first step.” Rudd envisages a body that facilitates trade, responding rapidly to crises such as threats of terrorism, and natural disasters, a multilateral body designed to maintain regional security.

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Whether this remains fluff, a massaging of moral imperatives in the face of climate change and economic obstacles, is an open question. The political visionaries are churning out material at speed from the planning rooms in Canberra, but the detail is threadbare. Nonetheless, Rudd and his advisors may be facing a reality pointed out by international relations theorist Barry Buzan in an issue of the Pacific Review in 2003. According to Buzan, there is “a distinct and longstanding regional structure in East Asia that is of at least equal importance to the global level shaping of the region’s security dynamics.”

There is little doubt that Rudd has identified a movement at work. A new regional architecture has been discussed for some time. The US considered various initiatives in the early post-Cold War period such as an Asian version of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe or an Asian NATO.

Dramatic shifts in regional relationships in the East Asian and Southeast Asian region have recently taken place. The economic leg is kicking with vigour: an East Asian Economic Community, an East Asian FTA and an Asia Pacific FTA are all on the cards. It is obvious that many Asian countries are seeking a community of sorts – the creation of the East Asian Summit in 2005 was an affirmation of this spirit.

There are other trends as well. The China-India relationship, as articulated in the Joint Declaration between the countries in November 2006, suggested exploring “a new architecture for closer regional cooperation in Asia”. And most recently, again with Washington’s keen interest in keeping itself in the picture of Asian security, a strategy called the “Big Four” initiative, involving the US, India, Australia and Japan was implemented. This arrangement, as pointed out in a sharp analysis by Siddharth Varadarajan (Hindu, 1 December 2006), was a “post-tsunami” naval agreement. The second is the “Five plus Five” formula, where existing military alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines are supplemented by hedging powers – India, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and New Zealand.

What of membership issues? Rudd, for instance, is keen to keep Washington in the picture, but this is something that may not sit comfortably with other countries in the region. Planners would do well to appreciate the tensions behind the foundation of APEC, which initially excluded the United States.

Only at Seattle, the site of the first leaders’ meeting in 1992, did Washington get a look-in, an outcome which led to a spat between then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad and Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating. Mahathir, having sought to keep it an all-Asian club, was labelled “recalcitrant” by a Keating bristling with frustration.

The problem within any new economic and security model is whether the US plays a balancing role (moderating the growing power of China) or exists as one on equal footing with its partners. In terms of dialogue and cooperation, APEC already enables member states to air problems on an equal footing without a deeper commitment. A community is quite a different proposition.

Rudd’s ideas have received a lukewarm, if not openly negative, reception. The Asia Times (11 June) called his plan a “hastily cobbled one” by a star-struck Sinophile, and unlikely to go far. “His proposal is at best premature and at worst presumptuous.” Nor was it entirely original – there was indeed very little to distinguish it from current processes.

Rudd had also managed to sour relations with a host of regional partners in pushing his schemes of union. The Japanese, initially perplexed by Australian preference to visit Beijing over Tokyo, retaliated by outlining a vision of the Asia-Pacific titled ‘Five Pledges to a Future Asia that “Acts Together”‘. Australia none too mysteriously vanished from the consideration of Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda. Regional commentators were also wondering why he hadn’t tended to the important relationship between Jakarta and Canberra.

Rudd has additional critics within his party. Two have been vocal – former Australian leaders Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. What was good for the Europeans, argued Hawke, was not necessarily good for the Asian region. Goals, both economic and political, could still be achieved in the region without the “full degree of integration that has occurred within the European Union” (SBS, 7 June).

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Keating was even more concise, quick to pounce on the fetters of sovereignty implied in an Asian EU model. It took the Chinese “350 years of the modern age to truly recover their sovereignty; I do not see them sharing much of it with anybody else.”

Keating reminds those who might believe in the stirrings of an Asianist identity, or even a Nehru-like Pan-Asianism, that they are barking up the wrong tree.

“Problem sharing and dialogue is one thing, the surrender or partial surrender of sovereignty is an altogether different thing.” APEC serves its purposes for the region, remarkable, claims Keating (The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 June), as having both a US president, the president of China and the Japanese prime minister, sit “in common cause”.

A mountain of work is needed on Rudd’s ideas before they have much meaning, but the Asia-Pacific community proposal, however unclear and amorphous, is unlikely to go away.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He lectures at the University of Queensland.