Features | Security | Oceania

Rudd Pacific Plan Lost at Sea?

The Australian prime minister’s vision of a Pacific community has been given a chilly Asian reception. Is it just bad timing?

Two years after proposing a new Asia Pacific community (APc) encompassing economic, political and security issues, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s grand plan for the region appears to be sinking as quickly as his government’s other much-hyped schemes on emissions trading, education and health.

With critics at home—including two former prime ministers from his own Labor Party—and the region itself seemingly less than welcoming to yet another diplomatic talkfest, the prospects for the new APc being in place by the stated goal of 2020 appear remote.

Indeed, perhaps reflecting the Government’s diminished confidence in the proposal, the acronym has already been downgraded from ‘APC’ to ‘APc.’ Rudd has time on his side, but the community vision is in danger of falling victim to the prime minister’s recent willingness to ditch policy pledges viewed as unpopular ahead of the upcoming federal election.

The Diplomat spoke with Australia’s former foreign minister, Alexander Downer, and a range of foreign policy analysts from across the region to assess the state of the APc and Australia’s view of its place in Asia under the centre-left government compared with that of its conservative predecessor. The Australian government, for its part, refused to comment on the APc to The Diplomat.

Rudd’s vision for an Asia-Pacific super forum was first outlined in a June 2008 speech to the Asia Society Australasia, entitled ‘It’s Time to Build an Asia-Pacific Community.’ Delivered shortly before his first and somewhat delayed visit as prime minister to Indonesia and Japan, the proposal called for ‘strong and effective regional institutions’ to address issues including security, terrorism, natural disasters, disease, trade, energy and food.

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While acknowledging the region’s existing architecture, the new Australian leader argued for the creation of ‘a regional institution which spans the entire Asia-Pacific region—including the United States, Japan, China, India, Indonesia and the other states of the region.’ It was to be capable of engaging in the ‘full spectrum of dialogue, cooperation and action on economic and political matters and future challenges related to security.’

Rudd also stated that he didn’t intend the ‘diminution of any of the existing regional bodies.’

‘APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Plus Three and ASEAN itself will continue to play important roles, and longer-term may continue in their own right or embody the building blocks of an Asia Pacific community,’ he said.

The new institution was immediately panned by Australia’s Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop, who described it as ‘another example of the prime minister just coming up with policy whims, floating it out there without doing any of the necessary groundwork.’

She was not alone.

Similar sentiments were expressed by ASEAN critics such as Barry Desker, head of Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, who described the APC as ‘dead in the water right from the very beginning.’ No Asian heads of government have publicly supported the scheme, while there has been considerable scepticism from leading ASEAN members such as Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia (although South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines have reportedly been more supportive, with China also said willing to discuss the concept).

Unsurprisingly, Downer—Australia’s longest-serving foreign minister—dismissed the APc as ‘meaningless’ in line with the views of his former colleagues. Currently serving as the UN envoy for Cyprus, Downer told The Diplomat that the Asia-Pacific region could do without another institution.

‘I don’t think [the APc] is clearly defined and I don’t think it will work,’ he said. ‘I think it’s meaningless and simply meant for domestic consumption.’

‘There was great debate over who would belong to the East Asia Summit, and I don’t think the region is ready to engage in a new round of debate over who would be involved in some new institution, a premier institution, and over what it would do. I think they’re dealing with it as the region tends to deal with difficult diplomatic issues—they’re being polite about it, but I don’t think there’s any substantial support for it.’

But while the Government was not prepared to defend its own proposal, there was some support in academic circles.

Prof. Andrew MacIntyre, Dean of the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, described it as ‘a modestly good idea’ that was worth pursuing.

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‘The difficulty we have at the moment is that we don’t have any framework that brings together all the countries that need to come together,’ he said. ‘There needs to be something that allows both India and the United States to both be in the conversation, and we haven’t got that.’

‘Whether you’re talking about an evolution of the East Asia Summit, or APEC, or the ASEAN Plus Three framework—it doesn’t matter too much which it is—but we need something that allows the full range of countries with major regional engagement to be together.’

Rudd’s point man on the APc has been veteran diplomat Richard Woolcott, who was credited by Rudd with having helped build support for APEC 20 years earlier under another Labor leader, then Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

Woolcott has reportedly followed a similar strategy to APEC’s formation of building support from ASEAN nations first before targeting the major powers. Yet after embarking on an 18 month-long tour of 21 regional capitals and racking up a reported $300,000 in travel and accommodation costs, the special envoy was able to report only support for ‘discussion’ about such a community.

In a May 2009 speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Rudd admitted that Woolcott had found ‘no appetite for additional institutions’ or meetings.

Woolcott, however, defended the need for a new community in a concept paper released prior to a December 2009 Sydney conference on the APc. He argued it was aimed at launching ‘a process of dialogue’ over a new body given the inadequacies of the existing groupings.

‘APEC’s mandate is economic, and its membership is so wide as to be unwieldy. The ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) has no leaders’-level meeting, can deal only with security matters and many believe it is too large and has made insufficient progress since its inception…ASEAN, APT (ASEAN Plus Three) and the EAS are each, to varying degrees, insufficiently representative of the Asia Pacific region to be said to constitute an APc. The EAS is most representative, and has a leaders’ meeting, but does not include some key countries,’ he wrote.

While the one-and-a-half track Sydney conference was well attended by regional experts, consensus was difficult to achieve.

The conference report concluded: ‘There was a broad, though not unanimous, view that APEC and the EAS could be the potential building blocks for an Asia Pacific community. If this approach were developed, in the case of APEC, it would be necessary to admit India and develop a security agenda; in the case of the EAS, it would be necessary to consider admitting the United States and Russia.’

There was also debate over the definition of ‘community’ and whether it entailed a customs union, an integrated economic system or a loose-knit grouping, but with common identity and purposes. It was argued that the APc should at its core comprise an annual leaders’ meeting, and that it should complement existing institutions and not replace them.

Yet critics hit out at the $800,000 cost of the two-day ‘talkfest’ as a waste of taxpayers’ money, arguing that regional players such as China, Indonesia and Singapore had been cool to the idea and that Rudd had failed to consult before launching his grand plan.

The mixed reaction to the APc has added to criticism that Australia’s foreign policy towards Asia has actually gone backwards under the supposedly ‘Asia-literate’ Rudd, hopes for whom were high with his fluency in Mandarin, diplomatic background and first-class honours in Asian studies.

‘Dysfunctional Diplomacy’

Rudd swept to victory in the November 2007 federal election on a platform of change. After 11 years of conservative government under Liberal Party leader John Howard, the new prime minister pledged to move Australia’s foreign policy focus from the ‘war against terror’ in distant Afghanistan and Iraq to the so-called ‘Arc of Instability’ in nearer South-East Asia.

Howard’s close ties to the United States had led him to commit 2000 Australian troops to fight alongside US forces in Iraq. He was reportedly criticised by then Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad for acting like a US ‘deputy general’ in South-East Asia, particularly for his threat to launch pre-emptive strikes on terrorist bases in the region.

However, the Howard government also had a number of successes in its Asia-Pacific foreign policy, including the achievement of an independent East Timor in the face of Indonesia’s belligerence; a strengthened US alliance, including the signing of a free trade agreement; an improved security relationship with Japan; and successful (though expensive) law and order interventions in the Solomon Islands and Nauru.

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‘Howard was a realist and a pragmatist who saw the necessity of the US alliance as vital for Australian security, as it seems Rudd does now. Howard also saw good relations with Asia as important, however he didn’t see a great deal of utility in the regional architecture such as ASEAN or APEC,’ according to the University of Queensland’s David Martin-Jones, an expert in international relations in the Asia-Pacific region.

‘The policy of Howard was determinedly bilateral rather than multilateral, which fits with his pragmatism and realism. Rudd is more multilateral, which comes from the “Asian engagement” philosophy which dominates Labor orthodoxy.’

Rudd, who served as a diplomat in Sweden and China in the 1980s and as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs from 2001 before becoming Labor leader, argued before gaining office that Australia’s foreign policy must be concentrated on its near neighbours.

Nevertheless, his government’s foreign policy has been based on three pillars: support for the US alliance; strengthening the United Nations, including seeking a seat on the UN Security Council by 2014; and ‘comprehensive engagement in the Asia-Pacific region.’ Nuclear disarmament has been another avowed Rudd goal, pursued on a multilateral basis with backing from Japan.

But by early 2010, Rudd’s honeymoon in foreign affairs, along with other areas of government, was well and truly over.

In a January 15, 2010 article published in The Australian headlined ‘Dysfunctional diplomacy,’ the newspaper’s Asia-Pacific editor, Rowan Callick, argued that despite Rudd’s credentials, ‘Australia’s relations with most of the important powers in the Asia-Pacific region are worse now than when Rudd took over.’

According to Callick, the Government’s goals of gaining admission to the UNSC, nuclear disarmament and developing the new APc ‘remain distant.’

‘Relationships with China, India and Japan have hit some turbulence…Relations with Fiji, the hub of the Pacific Islands region, have plummeted since military rule was established there,’ he wrote. He described the Indonesia relationship as ‘steady,’ although it was subsequently rocked by the Oceanic Viking refugee stand-off.

Dr Martin-Jones agreed with the criticisms, saying Rudd had seemed ‘politically deaf’ to Asia’s requirements in launching the APc onto an unsuspecting region.

‘It seems very strange that someone who is supposed to be Asia-literate has approached ASEAN in such an illiterate way,’ he said ‘He raised the APc proposal without first raising it informally in the ASEAN context, which is how ASEAN operates and is well known to any ASEAN literate scholar or diplomat.’

‘To send Richard Woolcott, a gerontocrat, a dinosaur, around the region to try and create some impetus, strikes Southeast Asians and any kind of objective commentator as a kind of surrealistic move,’ he said.

While Rudd’s election was originally welcomed in China, relations have soured over Chinese investment in Australian resources, the arrest and imprisonment of an Australian mining executive in Shanghai, an Australian defence white paper warning of the Chinese military threat and over the visit of a Uighur activist.

Ties with Japan have suffered over Rudd’s perceived closeness to China—a perception supported by his long-delayed visit to Tokyo and apparent initial kowtowing to Beijing—and the Government’s apparent collusion with radical opponents of Japanese whaling and threat of international court action over the issue.

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s ‘East Asian Community’ proposal, which reportedly places Japan, China, South Korea and ASEAN at the forefront, also has potential to conflict with Rudd’s broader APc grouping.

Meanwhile, ties with Asia’s other new emerging power, India, have suffered due to the Rudd government’s reneging on its predecessor’s pledge to allow the export of uranium to the nuclear-armed nation.

Building Blocks

What then is the future of Rudd’s APc? Will it become ‘another acronym in search of a verb’ or a practical body that binds the disparate region with enormous economic, political and cultural disparities together?

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Hope for Rudd’s plan has come from steadfast ally the United States, with US Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich quoted as saying that the APc would figure prominently in talks between the two leaders.

‘The US has applauded the leadership of the Prime Minister in saying we should reassess and re-evaluate the Asia-Pacific architecture—see if we can make it stronger and more coherent so we have all the major players on all the critical issues—both economic and security-related at the table. Right now we have a number of strong institutions but that doesn’t mean we can’t make them stronger or more efficient,’ he was quoted as saying to The Australian in a February 4, 2010 article.

On the down side, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono reportedly told Rudd during his March visit that the APc was ‘an interesting idea to explore,’ but that Indonesia’s policy priority was in strengthening ASEAN and not supporting a new forum.

‘The challenge is to make the existing institutions work properly and to build the key bilateral relationships which aren’t only important in themselves, but are very important in making sure we are able to operate effectively in regional institutions,’ Downer concurred. ‘You have to be careful in pushing for new institutions—if you start pushing a new institution then by definition you are detracting from the importance of the existing ones.’

Prof. Jeff Kingston, Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, says a ‘pragmatic, ad-hoc results-oriented approach’ was necessary for any new regional body. He cites the recent multilateral currency swap, the Chiang Mai Initiative, as the type of ‘building block’ required to create the foundations for regional architecture.

‘You have to build from the bottom up—you can’t impose on top a new institution and say, “OK now, let’s figure out how to make it work,”’ he says.

‘Everybody can talk themselves blue in the face about what we need and who should be in and who should be out, but unless the organisation can make concrete progress on specific issues, then it doesn’t have a raison d’être. And it seems clear that the current hodgepodge of regional organisations have left lots of opportunities for another body to prove its value.’