Australia's Foreign Policy: Rudd's paradox

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Jun 9 15:25:25 UTC 2008

Australia's Foreign Policy: Rudd's paradox
By kavi chongkittavorn
Published on June 9, 2008

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's recent proposal to establish an
Asia-Pacific Community by 2020 will make him very unpopular within
Asean and at the same time turn him into a hero in Northeast Asia and
the US. Interestingly enough, Rudd continues to view East Asia in the
old fashioned way: Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia as separate
entities. Such an approach could become problematic for Australia's
future engagement and partnership with Asean. Leaders of the two
regions met in 1997 for the first time in Kuala Lumpur to commemorate
the 30th anniversary of Asean's formation. As the meeting came on the
heels of the Asian financial crisis, the leaders agreed quite readily
that their destinies and security were more intertwined than they ever
imagined, or admitted.

That meeting gave birth to the Asean plus three process, which is
currently underpinned by the institutional-building in the
Asean-inspired East Asian community. They have met every year ever
since and renewed their commitment.  It is understandable why Rudd is
proposing the idea of an Asia-Pacific Community at this particular
time. At a personal level, the new Australian prime minister has been
perceived as a China-focused leader. He wants to dismantle this image.
His trip to China in March, the first Asian country he officially
visited, coupled with his own interest and language ability gave that
strong impression. So, it marked Australia's new foreign policy
priority towards Asia.

Obviously, his Asia Pacific Community will shift the debate to the
other Asia - non-China Asia - which is the turf of Asian democracies,
namely Japan and India. His much-awaited visit to Japan this week will
allow him to reiterate the important role played by Asia's richest
nation both in times of peace and crisis. To please the sensitive
Japanese leaders, he could even said that the idea is a reintroduction
of Tokyo's brainchild.

 Institutionally, Rudd wants to get rid of the current black hole in
the region. It was twenty years ago that Australia proposed the
establishment of Asia-Pacific-wide club, now known as Asia Pacific
Economic Cooperation (Apec). At the time, it was a great idea to
promote trade and economic cooperation across the Pacific Ocean that
encompassed the US and Pacific-Rim countries.

>>From the current perspective, the Apec framework remains a bit
abnormal as countries have been treated as economies for political
expediency rather than as countries with full sovereignty, making
certain aspects of their collective cooperation almost impossible.
Still, India, the newly emerging global power, is not a member. So
far, progress has been slow and in the aftermath of the September 11
tragedy, counter-terrorism cooperation and measures have dominated the
usual trade agenda.

Details of Rudd's proposal need to be ironed out concerning the role
and position of Asean. The envisaged regional group will combine
China, Japan, India and Indonesia along with the US and Australia. He
argued that Asia must go beyond the current mind-set and frameworks to
create a more encompassing regional community that would be able to
deal collectively with political, economic and security issues. In his
view, existing cooperative regional frameworks such as the Asean
Regional Forum, Asean Plus Three, East Asia Summit are insufficient.

For the countries outside Asean, the new community will have greater
significance and augur well for the new collective challenges
confronting the region. These issues, which no single country can cope
with, are trans-border in nature such as climate change,
counter-terrorism, security in energy and goods, not to mention a
freer trading system. That much is clear.

Indeed, upon close scrutiny it is crystal clear what Rudd is driving
at is a new regional architecture without the Asean centrality. In his
reading, Asean is no longer perceived as a driving force in regional
cooperation with a strategic environment.  After all, the regional
frameworks Rudd mentioned were all linked to Asean. Each forum has its
own unique, quite irritating problems.

For instance, the East Asian Summit or  Asean plus six is not
considered as a community-building process - which is the privilege of
Asean plus three - but rather a discussion forum. To put it in a
light-hearted way, Australia is poised not to renew the grouping's
driving licence. At this juncture, nobody knows how Indonesia -
whether it is standing alone or on behalf of Asean - can fit into this
new setting.

Perhaps, Rudd will use his visit to the Jakarta-based Asean
Secretariat on Friday, as part of an official trip to Indonesia to
magnify his vision related to Asean. Rudd has a lot to explain when he
meets and hold talks with Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan. As
the second oldest dialogue partner of Asean since 1974, Australia, has
occupied a special place in the annals of Asean's institutional and
capacity building. AustAid has a representative office in the

As the first leader from dialogue partners to stop over at the
grouping's headquarters, he will make history. But he must quickly
dispel any inkling in Asean that his perception is Euro-centric and
condencending before it becomes an established fact. In a similar
vein, Surin must convince Rudd that Asean is reinventing itself and is
still relevant. Australia and Asean need each other's support for any
viable regional scheme.

Rudd must avoid the pitfall of the Howard government, which came to
power with a strong US-dominated foreign policy. Infamous comments on
Australia's role as a deputy sheriff and rights for pre-emptive
strikes unnecessarily harmed his standing in Asia. Tangible progress
former prime minister John Howard accomplished related to his Asian
policies including Asean in the latter half of his administration
would have scored higher points and appreciation if not for the
earlier hiccups.

At least for now, Rudd has no reasons to do a somersault regarding
Australia foreign policy towards Asia while Canberra is enjoying
excellent relations with Asean. It he does proceed with the idea, it
could have a far-reaching repercussion on the region and could
subsequently disrupt its creative middle power diplomacy.
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