The Australian Prime Minister has called together in Sydney on December 4th and 5th, “key government officials, academics and opinion makers from around the region to come together and discuss the future of our [Asia’s or at least a part of Asia’s] regional architecture for the 21st century.”  Now the PM is aware that there is no consensus on the shape of the regional architecture for Asia – is it a regional body built on the foundation of ASEAN; or is it instead a wider regional architecture built on the promise of an Asia Pacific community encompassing both sides of the Pacific?

As I mentioned in my earlier blog post, “Do You Want to Dance? – The Rise of Asia and the Shape of Global Governance” the Australian Prime Minister’s APc proposal is identified as a wide Asia Pacific organization that is comprehensive in character  - it will encompass economic and financial matters but extend to political and security concerns as well.

Our ambition remains to create an Asian-Pacific Community by 2020.  And that is a single pan-regional body that brings together the United States, China, India, Indonesia, Japan and the other countries of the region with a broad agenda. 

Richard Woolcott, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy has suggested (Concept Paper dated October 12, 2009) the following as Australia’s vision:

Australia believes the time has now come to extend the vision that drove the formation of ASEAN to the wider Asia Pacific region.  An Asia Pacific community could be seen as a natural broadening of the processes of confidence, security and community-building led by ASEAN.

Furthermore the Prime Minister has suggested that his actions are both proactive and ‘non partisan’. The Prime Minister hopes to avoid drift in the region and to avoid the possibility of rising tensions by promoting this process now though such a process will take much time to bear fruit.

As for Australian neutrality the Prime Minister in his Shangri-La Dialogue speech, dated May 20, 2009 argued:

As I have said many times and as my envoy has stated around the region, I have a completely open mind on how we proceed and where we end up.  Australia has no prescriptive view.  This is a complex and important matter which needs proper consideration.

But the underlying motivation suggests something less than neutral.  And while the Prime Minister in his Kokoda Foundation makes clear that ASEAN is at the heart of the APc, repeated by his Special Envoy in his Concept Paper, there is more than a hint from experts in the region that the APc will ‘marginalize’ the ASEAN – this notwithstanding the clear expression by the Prime Minister to the contrary:

For this concept, the Asia Pacific Community, to succeed, ASEAN must be at its core.  And we look forward to the continued dialogue with our ASEAN friends on its final constitution.

Li Shaoxian, a Vice President of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) puts this concern well:

This new idea made ASEAN worrisome because, from ASEAN’s points of view, any steps to link the regional big powers closer would likely weaken its position as a big power balancer. The ASEAN countries worried the possibility of being marginalized…

KS Kesavapany, Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, put his concern even more pointedly:

However, this particular proposal is problematic because it does not reflect the interests of small countries, which lie in continuing to uphold ASEAN’s centrality.

Ah there’s the rub then.  For many experts and officials the creation of this large Asia Pacific community is likely to be created and to function at the cost of the diminution of power and authority of the ASEAN.  So there lies the major fault line – a wider comprehensive Asia Pacific community versus an Asian community built principally on ASEAN and focused on the Asian Way and incorporating possibly ‘Open Regionalism’ (whatever that means) of APEC.  The latter vision may not necessarily integrate the various institutions in the region.  For instance Professor Tommy Koh, Chairman of the Institute of Policy Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore sees it as:

The truth appears to be that we should learn to live with complexity. The world is a messy place.  The existing institutional arrangements to promote the Asia Pacific community may appear imperfect but, we should remember that it has taken several decades of delicate diplomacy to build up the edifice and each component has its own logic and history. It would be unwise to undermine the edifice in the quest for simplicity and perfection. As the saying goes, the best is often the enemy of the good.

Now at CIGI we have struggled as well in our definition of BRICSAM – the large emerging powers or the rising states.  We’ve been consistent in including Brazil, Russia (though some would dispute this), India, China, and with a little less certainty, South Africa and Mexico.  But it is more problematic when it comes to Asia.  Should we include ASEAN, as a rising power – though still a sub-regional organization -  or should we instead focus on Indonesia the largest by far power in Southeast Asia and Muslim as well.   The answer is not clear – including not clear in Asia as well.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.