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The Asia Pacific community Proposal: Community, Directorate or Network

Updated On: Dec 07, 2009

by Simon Tay, Chairman, Singapore Institute of International Affairs

A Short Paper for “the Asia-Pacific Community in the 21st Century”,
a consultation at Sydney, 3-5 December 2009

This short paper is presented for the “track one and a half” consultation on “the Asia Pacific Community in the 21st century”, convened by the Australian government.  The paper briefly discusses three questions: (1) What is the APc proposal? (2)  What are the implications of the proposal(s)? ; and (3) What principles should guide the path ahead for the region?

What is the APc Proposal?
From very early since assuming his office, the Australian PM Kevin Rudd has mentioned the proposal for a new process or institution to be known as the Asia Pacific community (APc). Nevertheless, there remains considerable doubt about what an APc might look like, as conceived by PM Rudd and Australia. Moreover, what has been said about the APc proposal by PM Rudd has seemed to change over time, and the idea may still evolve further.

This is, in part no doubt, due to the stated policy of PM Rudd and his Special Envoy, Ambassador Richard Woolcott, to consult and be in a listening mode on the proposal. The relatively long time line PM Rudd has now proposed for the APc to coalesce (2020) is another reason for this lack of details.

However, from different sources and especially the most recent statement by PM Rudd (Source: Rudd, APEC CEO Summit, 15 Nov 2009), we can glean the following elements of the APc:
•    The APc should be a single institution to meet at the leaders’ level with a mandate to address comprehensively both economic and strategic (including security and political) challenges.
•    The APc would build on existing regional architecture but as yet, none of the existing structures/fora is satisfactory.
•    The APc would foster habits of cooperation and mutual assistance and thus avoid the risk of negative competition and conflict.
•    The membership should be “the economies and countries of our region”. These would include the USA, China, Japan, India, Australia and those from Southeast Asia.

Todate, there has not been a very strong reaction to the proposal, whether positive or negative. But the lack of a strong reaction is not to suggest support or acceptance. In considerable part, this has been because PM Rudd and the Australian government have not endorsed specifics of the APc proposal. Even so, in April 2009, at a relatively early stage of the discussion, a gathering of ASEAN think tanks and experts concluded that, “ASEAN should not formulate a position on the Australian proposal for an Asia Pacific Community until the purposes and modalities for the new grouping are further clarified, including the potential overlaps with existing processes in Asia and the Asia-Pacific.” The meeting also warned that, “There are dangers if we undermine the existing processes, especially when it is not clear if this idea would be able to succeed where the existing processes already face challenges.” (source: ASEAN-ISIS and Think Tank Meeting, 16 April)  

An idea initiated by one may however be taken up by others for different reasons and with different details. Whether intended or not, the discussion initiated by PM Rudd has thrown up the following possibilities:

  1. Asian G8: An Asian G8 comprising US, China, Japan, Russia, India, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea and Australia; (source: Paul Kelly, Shape of the Future, The Australian 20 Dec 08, quoting Richard Woolcott)
  2. Asian G10: An Asian G10 comprising the above countries plus the present and future ASEAN Chairs; (source: Paul Kelly, Shape of the Future, The Australian 20 Dec 08, quoting Richard Woolcott)
  3. APEC 19: An Asia Pacific Leaders’ Summit comprising the 19 members of APEC (less Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei) plus India; (source: draft PECC Task Force Report on the Regional Architecture)
  4. Asia Pacific 10: A G10 comprising the Asia Pacific members of the G20, i.e., Australia, Canada, China, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, the US and India; (source: draft PECC Task Force Report on the Regional Architecture)
  5. East Asia 6: A group comprising the six EAS countries in the G20, i.e., China, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, and India. (Lowy Institute Policy Brief, Oct 2009, A G-20 Caucus for East Asia.)

While these proposals differ one from the other, the following general characteristics may be observed:

  1. All proposals (bar the East Asia 6) include the USA and Russia.
  2. All proposals would include India.
  3. Most proposals (bar the APEC 19 and Asia Pacific 10) exclude all North American countries except for the USA.
  4. All proposals (bar the APEC 19) would exclude medium and smaller countries.
  5. None of them are ASEAN-centered, as are most existing Asian regional institutions and meetings.

Looking at the proposals above, we can note general characteristics (3), (4) and (5) to observe that the APc is likely to be less inclusive than the existing multilateral forum in Asia and APEC itself. Unfortunately, this suggests a Directorate of Asia driven by the larger Asian and Pacific powers in collaboration and dialogue with the USA, not a true community of the region – which has many smaller and medium sized nations.

Moreover, we can note from the general characteristic (3) that the APc is not truly a trans-Pacific process. It only includes the USA from the Western side of the Pacific, and not others from North or South America, as APEC does. In this regard, the APc is again non-inclusive, primarily a dialogue between the USA and a selected number of countries from East Asia or the Eastern side of the Pacific (India, Australia and Russia).  

Even if the proposal is said to seek to build on existing processes and institutions, the implication that flows from these characteristics is that the APc intends not to be just another grouping alongside those that already exist, but one that, in many ways, is on top of the others – by being comprehensive in mandate yet directed by the more powerful.

How do we think of the APc if it is to be such a directorate? ASEAN think tanks and experts that met in August 2009 concluded that: “The think tanks believe that the idea of an Asia Pacific community, as presently proposed by Australia, may not be sufficiently inclusive. If so, it should not be supported.” (Source: the ASEAN Think Tanks Forum, 4-5 August 2009)

Such a reception is not limited to those who will be marginalised and excluded. Inclusion has a merit of its own, that even more powerful states (which would be included) have learnt to value.  In Asian regionalism, Japan, South Korea, and especially China have strong ties with ASEAN and the Southeast Asian countries, many of which could be excluded in the APc. Indonesia too can be said to have gained from being the largest country and informal leader in the ASEAN group. A non-inclusive membership would therefore shrink the influence and ties that these larger countries would have in the hypothetical APc.

Consequently, an unintended consequence of such an APc could be to confuse other arrangements for Asian states, sans the USA. These include proposals such as Japan PM Hatoyama’s East Asia Community as well as the ASEAN+3 process, which already has ten years of work and been the subject of attention and effort by all involved, including China. This is especially if the APc seeks to be – explicitly or implicitly – the directing framework for all in the region and all other regional groupings in Asia.

In addition to non-inclusion, another general characteristic of different iterations of the APc is that there is no central role for ASEAN. Indeed, in many of the proposals noted above, only one ASEAN member state has entree – Indonesia. Should ASEAN be sidelined?

ASEAN has its achievements and was seen by PM Rudd himself as “an outstanding success story” Rudd indeed saw the challenge as being “How to generalize ASEAN for the larger region? (Source: Rudd, APEC CEO Summit, 15 Nov 2009).

The USA too seems to have come to appreciate the importance of inclusion and of ASEAN. In November 2009, President Obama attended the first US-ASEAN Summit. To hold this Summit, moreover, required that the USA alter its long standing policy against dialogue with Myanmar. At this first Summit, the US and ASEAN leaders agreed to develop a broad agenda for cooperation, ranging from economic cooperation to climate change and human rights issues.

ASEAN is by no means perfect. Nor are ASEAN-centered institutions. Moving away from ASEAN-centric structures however could unhinge the regional balance. A trusted and relatively weak ASEAN has acted as the “glue” that has brought all these regional powers together in Asia, notwithstanding their present and on going differences. The complaint that these ASEAN-centric structures move too slowly is heard in some quarters. But even if justified, it must be considered how much of that is due to ASEAN itself, and how much is due to the underlying interests of other states.

The Path Ahead

The Asia Pacific continues to see the highest growth in the world and, relatively, is weathering the crisis well. The region has high levels of trade and interdependence and protectionism has been reduced. Tensions and differences in the political and security realm have not all been dissolved, but as a whole those have been managed so as to allow a stable foundation for shared prosperity.

The region cannot be complacent. But where conflicts have loomed, ad hoc arrangements have been instituted to coordinate and shape responses. These often draw on and add to the existing bilateral ties and also the multilateral fora. The 6-party talks on the Korean peninsula, for all its frustrations, are often cited as an example of this. Even if the APc idea were to gain support in East Asia, there is no clear evidence that the APc would create a more effective alternative to the current regional architecture and the ad hoc arrangements that have arisen.

It may also seem to the casual observer that the existing regional architecture is a confusing “alphabet soup” of acronyms.  However, these structures did not appear haphazardly but were agreed by governments and have over time developed organically, in response to specific needs and challenges. Through existing structures like APEC, ARF, EAS and ASEAN+3, all countries with a stake in regional peace, stability and economic prosperity are engaged. Through these fora, the relevant issues facing the region (e.g. strategic, political, security-related, economic, financial, and functional cooperation) can, and are being addressed.  It may be accurate to observe that there is no single institution among leaders with the mandate to address comprehensively both economic and strategic challenges.  

But this begs the question of whether the diversity and balance of the region can be better served by a single institution or by allowing a web or network of different groupings.  Such an Asia Pacific network can (1) soften questions of who is “in” or “out” of the region; (2) better balance competition for influence and leadership among different powers; (3) complement and be complemented by bilateral strategic and security arrangements that already exist and allow for creative ad hoc arrangements to respond to specific needs; (4) better reflect and draw from the diversity in Asia and the Pacific; and (5) be sufficiently coordinated by governments and leaders at their national levels to meet their own particular emphases and needs.

In what has been done so far, ASEAN has played a significant role. The grouping can continue to do so in future, provided that its own community project proceeds and allows it to credibly and effectively evolve the existing ASEAN-led processes with the full participation of other members.  As Thailand’s Prime Minister and current ASEAN chair, Abhisit Vejjajiva, observed the Asia Pacific should not become complacent with the current arrangement. But for now, the best and most realistic framework for regional stability and institutional efficacy is not to “tidy everything up” into one regional forum, but instead to build upon and develop the institutions that are already functioning and effective (Source: Abhisit Vejajjiva, APEC CEO Summit 2009).

Looking ahead, Asia and the Asia-Pacific have to balance between being a community of values against a ‘community’ based and directed by power. As PM Rudd himself has acknowledged, ASEAN has a role to play in this by promoting an example of a community with its own habits and modes of cooperation. This can be seen in in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) which all major powers have signed, and other examples of diplomacy and norms. The ASEAN and Asian engagement across the Pacific and with the USA should reinforce the importance of values and norms and not just the balancing of different emerging powers.

In this, different institutions and processes can play different roles at different points in time. APEC may be even more useful as the USA will host the 2011 APEC Summit. The new ASEAN-US Summit will be another venue, alongside the already established bilateral alliances and summits. If there is need for more, the existing ASEAN-led meetings might possibly evolve.

One such possibility is for the the East Asia Summit (EAS) to include the USA and Russia. This could remake the EAS as a whole or, alternatively, c0uld have an EAS+2 structure. The latter would engage the USA and Russia, while allowing the EAS to meet separately prior to meeting with the USA and Russia. It would also allow the EAS to continue to function fully in the event that for any particular year in which the US or Russian leader might be unable to attend. This is of course only one possible evolution from what already exists (Source: ASEAN Think Tank Forum, August 2008).

Cooperation in East Asia is nascent. The first meeting in over a thousand years between the leaders of Asia’s three regional powers China, Japan, and South Korea took place only some 10 years ago, and this was notably at the sidelines of an ASEAN-led Summit. Since then, amidst growing nationalism and historical animosity that has sometimes led to riots, protests, and diplomatic reproaches, ASEAN has continued to bring all three parties to the table and also brought in others such as India. The needs in Asia and in the Asia Pacific will continue to evolve and groupings and meetings will also need to evolve. But there is, in my view, a strong case against – not for -- a non-inclusive fora led by major powers  to direct events in all fields and other fora. The region instead may be better served by a network of multiple and perhaps even confusing and overlapping groups that can recognize and manage the diversity and differences in the region. In this, ASEAN-led processes should evolve to lead the way alongside a network of other groupings and relationships.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

Simon Tay is the Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

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