Is the East Asia Summit Rudd’s gift to the world?
By Thom Woodroofe
Barack Obama’s first official visit to Australia in November was a short stop on the way to the main event. The 2011 East Asia Summit was about to be held in Bali and it was the first time the United States, and Russia, would be included.
This expansion of the Summit is in large part a result of Australian diplomacy, but this remains underappreciated.
In June 2008, on the eve of his first official visit to Asia as Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd announced the desire to create an Asia Pacific Community. Greg Sheridan suggested in The Australian that this was designed to provide a wider narrative for the regional tour, dubbing Rudd the “Mad Hatter” for his desire to centralise control over Australia’s diplomatic efforts and constantly announce new initiatives.
The revelation that no other countries were briefed prior to the announcement, and that his Special Envoy Richard Woolcott was briefed with only two hours notice, further undermined the possibility of pragmatic evaluation of the idea.
However, Rudd’s speech clearly established two “building blocks” of how an Asia Pacific community (APc) would look. These were the inclusion of the United States, Japan, China, India and Indonesia in a forum with a wide ranging agenda across economic, political and security issues. But Rudd’s speech also featured a heavy focus on the comparative evolution of the European Union (EU) and a timeframe of 2020, both of which plagued the debate from the beginning by creating a grandiose sense of what he was trying to achieve.
This ensured that Rudd’s idea would never be decoupled from the notion of the establishment of an EU-style body for the region, and the continued heavy reliance on 2020 timelines by the Rudd Government provided easy cannon fodder for critics. The tactically amateurish use of a capital ‘C’ for community also fuelled the belief that Rudd was contemplating such a union rather than simply a broader discussion, as was implied when the capital was dropped months later. Not doing so from the outset was a mistake.
In addition, the role of the all powerful ASEAN bloc (Association of South East Asian Nations) was omitted in Rudd’s announcement. While Rudd has subsequently said he has been “a longstanding fan of ASEAN”, its initial exclusion signalled to many that Rudd was either proposing a possible competitor to ASEAN or something that could potentially sideline ASEAN altogether. However, Rudd said from the outset that “APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Plus Three and ASEAN itself will continue to play important roles, and longer-term may continue in their own right or embody the building blocks of an Asia Pacific Community.”
While Rudd’s idea may have been met with a heavy dose of scepticism and criticism, it was not without basis. For many years, the Asia Pacific has been home to what many have called an “alphabet soup with numerical croutons” of regional institutions without any clear and inclusive big brother.
Besides the 21 member economy grouping of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the ten member country grouping of ASEAN, there is also: ASEAN+3 (APT) which brings China, Japan and South Korea into the fold; the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) which widens it to 27 member countries; the pre-existing East Asia Summit which was effectively APT with the further inclusion of Australia, New Zealand and India; and even the Six-Party Talks on North Korea. Unsurprisingly, the original report from Woolcott concluded that the existing architecture was unwieldy.
Woolcott’s report certainly indicated that the East Asia Summit provided the easiest model to satisfy the prerequisites of an APc with the inclusion of the United States, and potentially other countries such as Russia. However, this seemed unlikely as it would require the commitment of the United States’ President to two regional forums in Asia annually. Moreover, ASEAN was sceptical about further its their regional forums, having just added India, Australia and New Zealand. Many were also sceptical as to what the EAS achieved with some labelling it “dinner followed by sixteen speeches”.
Another logical option would have been expanding APEC’s agenda from economic matters, but this featured little in Woolcott’s report. This was surprising given Woolcott’s role in establishing APEC and also given his consultations only included the existing 21 APEC members.
This idea would have required expanding APEC membership to include India, but this had been a long simmering debate within the forum itself. While India’s inclusion in APEC has long been supported by Australia, Japan and the United States, it has been met with fierce opposition from others, such as the Philippines. China would have also likely been uncomfortable with the inclusion of Taiwan at any forum relating to regional security rather than economics. Therefore, the difficulties of membership in APEC seemed to suggest that, even with the existing buy-in of the White House, the East Asia Summit proved a better vehicle through which to progress the possibility of an APc.
Aside from existing architecture, the debate also brought to the surface a much deeper discussion of what would constitute the ‘Asia Pacific’ in itself. As mentioned, Woolcott’s consultations were only extended to APEC economies, which are presently defined largely by those with a border lapping the Pacific Ocean. However, aside from India there are many other pending applications for membership of APEC, including from Mongolia, Pakistan, Laos, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador largely on the basis of their heavy business activities in the region. As Australia’s Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said at the time “If all the Pacific states are included that must include all the countries with a border on the Pacific Ocean including the United States. Then you get to Latin America and South America, are they to be included? If you look on the other side of Asia, is Taiwan to be included? Is Burma to be included? If India is to be in it would Saudi Arabia? Iran? Iraq?”
Woolcott’s report concluded that while there was interest in Rudd’s idea for a more all encompassing agenda for dialogue within the region, there was “little appetite” for a new institution. Many commentators, including Bernard Keane from Crikey! suggested this was the “death knell” for the idea, but Rudd only redoubled his efforts convening a one-and-a-half track dialogue in Sydney in December 2009 for the region’s leading thinkers and diplomats. In the months leading up to the conference, Rudd continued to press the idea to regional leaders, including through the rare honour of being the keynote speaker to the Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore, and having his idea included briefly in the Communiqué of the 2009 APEC Summit and discussed at the accompanying CEO Summit which Rudd addressed. Rudd also used his address at the East Asia Summit in Thailand that year to brief regional leaders on the idea. However, he was overshadowed by the Japanese Prime Minister floating a competing idea for an East Asian Community or trade bloc based on the East Asia Summit or the APT, which seemed to deliver more tangible outcomes to member states.
Throughout, Rudd’s idea was continually beset by heavy criticism from both domestic and regional constituencies. The Australian newspaper sought to undermine the idea at every opportunity, focussing on the seemingly unachievable concept of creating an “Asian-EU” as one headline read. Front-page column space was dedicated to menial details on whether visiting heads of government supported the idea or not, regardless of whether it was on the agenda for their discussions. The coverage also failed to mention the support of countries such as the United States and Thailand for Rudd’s idea. Regionally, critics such as Barry Desker, the head of Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, described the idea as “dead in the water” and members of the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies called it “a dangerous concept” in an opinion piece for The Bangkok Post and the Singapore Strait Times. Rudd also came under heavy criticism for not meeting regularly with Woolcott; a subsequent essay released by Australian journalist David Marr in mid-2010 quoted Woolcott as saying “there comes a point when big ideas need prime ministerial time, and it isn’t there. It’s a disjunction.” All this distracted from the bigger picture.
However, Rudd’s idea was buoyed by the announcement in late 2009 by the United States Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell that the United States would “hang back a little bit” and wait and see how the regional architecture evolved before taking a position. With the election of the self-described “first Pacific President” a year earlier, this seemed the first definitive statement that there was interest from Washington in heightening their involvement in the region’s architecture. Diplomatic cables released subsequently by WikiLeaks reveal this was in large part a consequence of Rudd’s sustained advocacy. This signal from Washington cannot be understated, and provided the catalyst for ASEAN to seriously contemplate ways the United States could be brought into the region’s institutions. An invitation to join the East Asia Summit was the logical response. Sinagapore also floated an idea to establish an ASEAN+8 grouping that would meet every three years on the back of APEC with effectively the same membership of the East Asia Summit but with the inclusion of Russia and the United States.
By the April ASEAN Meeting in Hanoi in 2010, the United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made clear the United States’ interest in joining an expanded East Asia Summit, calling it the “foundational security and political institution for Asia”. A model suggested by Stanford University’s Donald K. Emmerson was adopted by Clinton whereby the United States would “ease into” the East Asia Summit by dispatching the Vice President or herself in 2010, to be followed by the President in 2011. ASEAN responded positively but ensured its centrality was on display by stating in the Forum’s communiqué that “any new regional framework or process should be complementary to and built upon existing regional mechanisms and the principle of ASEAN’s centrality”.
While Rudd’s original announcement seemed predicated on the establishment of a broader regional union, there is little doubt the ensuing debate provided the framework for the Obama Administration’s decision to heighten their engagement in Asia’s regional architecture. Rudd quickly seized on the ASEAN and US announcements, saying “the inclusion of the United States and Russia in our region’s emerging architecture is fundamental to the evolution of what I call an Asia-Pacific community. In fact, so much of Australia’s diplomacy has been driven by this core concern – how to integrate in particular the role of the United States in the future broad architecture of our region.”
After his demise as Prime Minister, his successor Julia Gillard also reiterated this stance, saying that the United States’ involvement in the East Asia Summit would achieve what she called “the practical objectives” of Rudd’s plan. However, Australia’s role in helping establish the environment for an expanded EAS to become a reality is unlikely to ever be fully recognised, given the political mismanagement and ensuing opposition to Rudd’s original announcement.
Either way, the inclusion of the United States and Russia in the annual heads of government level East Asia Summit signals an important step in the development of the region’s architecture. Furthermore, it signals an important step in ensuring the commitment and time of the United States’ presidency to the region through two annual gatherings. As Hilary Clinton has said “half of diplomacy is showing up.”
Thom Woodroofe is an associate fellow of the Asia Society based in Australia. He has interviewed both Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd & Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on the Asia Pacific Community.
Photo: The White House President Barack Obama – Photo of the Day November 2011 – http://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/photogallery/november-2011-photo-day
This article was first published in Quarterly Access Summer 12 (Vol 4, Issue 1). It can be accessed here.