We came to Sydney and now we’ve left. So what was created in between? What I’m talking about is the invitation by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to attend in Sydney last - Friday and Saturday - and examine an Asia Pacific Community (APc). And to this Conference came invitees from countries from all across the Asia Pacific region.
For 18 months now the Prime Minister and his special envoy and conference host, Richard Woolcott have pursued the goal of a regional exploration with experts and officials. As the PM put it to us in his formal address to participants at the APc Conference on Friday December 4th:
… our region, the Asia Pacific region, is still without a regional institution with wide membership and a wide mandate to deal with the breadth and depth of political, security, economic and environmental challenges we will face for in the 21st century – the century of the Asia Pacific.
So we were urged to take the next step. To take up as a track 1.5 - a conversation including government, the academy, opinion makers and other experts - Conference with folks from all around the Asia Pacific a regional conversation on the Asia Pacific’s future.
As he has in the past, the PM eschewed a particular answer:
Quite deliberately, I have given no complete answer to this question in the eighteen months of our conversation. We believe that we have asked a good set of questions,, but we do not claim to have all the answers.
Well that may be true but the Conference delivered – thanks to the convenors and co-chairs - a deliberate process – that appeared to be well thought out by them and officials – I’d say not surprisingly. After the former Korean PM recommended in a luncheon speech the creation of an eminent persons group – an EPG – with many suspicious that the proposal was that recommendation of the Prime Minister’s office – this recommendation found itself in the concluding comments by Michael Wesley, the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute – a convenor - and Michael, a co-chair for the Conference. Many of the academics were nonplussed by what appeared to be a partly unofficial process that was in fact predetermined and a conference framing for a poorly disguised official wish and goal.
Notwithstanding the discomfort over the presumed official handling there was quite an open debate. Most evident was the discomfort by the smaller ASEAN states – Singapore, Cambodia and Malaysia. Singapore participants in particular expressed skepticism and even distaste for an Asia Pacific Community. It was evident that these smaller countries expressed a real concern that the emergence of an APc would marginalize these smaller countries and lessen the centrality of ASEAN. Indeed a number of participants raised concern for the growing distance of Indonesia – the largest member of ASEAN from the organization. Indeed some of the Indonesian participants did little to assuage the concerns of other ASEAN participants. And why not. Indonesia has become part of the ‘big boys’ club the - G20.
So what is the bottom line here? I think for Australia it remains - and to its credit - a forward-looking proposal centred on regional security. Australia foresees the possibility of rising competition, and cooperation among the major powers in particular the 5 major powers of the region – India, Japan, Russia, China and the United States. While the collaboration in a more Asia Pacific centred world would be welcomed, it is the competition and possible conflict that drives Australian thinking. Australia sees that the United States in particular is tied only bilaterally to countries in the region – Japan, Australia and Korea – and certainly not to China – the most evident rising power of the region. Australia appears determined to build a multilateral arrangement that draws in the US and the other major powers and builds the norm of collaboration and regional action. As the PM declares:
In a region that is dynamic and increasingly inter-connected, and which already has its share of challenges, we need increasingly to manage our future together. … In short, we need to plan – we need to plan with each other, rather than against each other as has often been the custom in past times.
The manipulation may be more evident than is welcome but the purpose may warrant the behavior.