Matching Rudd's Asian ambition with reality

Matching Rudd's Asian ambition with reality

17 Jul 2008

Dr Nick Bisley
Email: n.bisley@latrobe.edu.au

Mr Rudd is nothing if not ambitious. His recent declaration that Australia will lead the charge to strengthen Asia’s institutional architecture was extravagant, even by his not inconsiderable standards. There can be no doubt that Asia needs greater cooperation if it is to make the most of its potential and to avoid the simmering rivalries among the major powers from leading to serious conflict. He is also right to say that regional mechanisms must include the US, Japan, China and India if they are to deliver the goods. Picking at the somewhat clumsy delivery of the idea detracts from the values of the underlying point: something in the region needs to be done. The question, therefore, is how Australia, a minor player in Asia, can turn the soaring ambition into policy changes among major regional powers? How can new efforts avoid the many palpable shortcomings of the existing alphabet soup of regional groupings?

Asia has rapidly moved from having very few regional institutions to having almost too many. Alongside the 1967 creation, ASEAN, we have APEC, the East Asia Summit, the Shanghai Cooperation Council, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN+3, ASEAN+1 and literally hundreds of unofficial and quasi-official meetings. Asian states like to create institutions. They are much less keen, however, on these groupings actually shaping or constraining their policy choices. This is the first major obstacle that Rudd and his community builders need to overcome. One of the basic reasons for Europe’s success was a shared view across all of the major powers of the need to cooperate. This in turn derived from a rough consensus as to their common interests. The best that one can say about Asia is that such a consensus is lacking. There is deep-seated mistrust and rivalry among all of the key players. The best and most plausible thing that Australia can do is to help foster wide-ranging but low-key diplomatic efforts to break-down rivalry and build trust. Only when the mistrust has been reduced can real community building begin to occur.

As Australian diplomats are acutely aware, bureaucratic resources are scarce. They cannot be spread too thinly and still deliver good results. Efforts to improve regional institutional mechanisms must be cognizant of this and ambitions trimmed accordingly. By moving too quickly, including too many states and trying to do too much organizations like APEC and the ARF doomed themselves to failure. Ultimately, they lack credibility because they allowed political expectations to get away from reality. The lesson of recent efforts is that regional groupings must set achievable targets so as to maintain the interest of their members. APEC is now notable for states using the media interest in the annual leaders’ summit to announce non-APEC activity and cut bilateral deals with each other. For community building in Asia to work it will need to start small, achieve realistic goals and then capitalize on interest to expand operations over a long time frame.

Institution building is a difficult and expensive task and the weight of diplomatic inertia cannot be exaggerated. The best way to make short term progress to the broader goal is to reform existing institutions and develop an effective division of labour among the bodies. Creating a geographically and functionally expansive institution from scratch that will be trans-Pacific and cover everything from security cooperation to trade liberalization is completely unrealistic over the next five to ten years. By rejuvenating existing bodies and working on dividing policy tasks among them, plausible steps on that path can be achieved.

So what can Richard Woolcott and his team do to achieve Rudd’s grandiose vision? The first step should be to join with other powers in the region, most obviously the key ASEAN states of Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore, to promote the East Asia Summit as the key forum for the region, and work to place it at the heart of efforts to develop an Asian community. That was, after all its original intention. Then, and this is where it gets tricky, they should convince the US to join. This will require that the US sign ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a task of suitably Aegean scale for Mr Rudd’s taste. If Australia can use its relations with the US to achieve this then Rudd’s government will have done a great deal to marry its ambitions for the region with a complex reality.

Dr Nick Bisley is Associate Professor in International Relations at La Trobe University.

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