Monday, December 7, 2009

Australian PM Kevin Rudd on an ASEAN charm offensive


THE NIGHT BEFORE the Asia Pacific: A Community for the 21st Century Conference started, the delegates from ASEAN held an informal 30-minute caucus at a Sydney hotel to review their positions on the Australian plan to create a new community in the region.

They went quickly over their three common positions - the continuity of ASEAN centrality, no new structure whatsoever and any new effort on regional architecture must not be detrimental to the grouping. All delegates agreed.

They were the same positions that the |current ASEAN chair, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, had taken during the panel discussion last month at the Apec CEO Summit in Singapore along with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. But Abhisit went further in stating that no |single formula is better than another, as each has its own unique characteristics. ASEAN is linked to all existing frameworks, he added, but it must remain open to new ideas as they can strengthen the existing institution to better cope with the challenges of the 21st century.

Although the ASEAN delegates attended the two-day conference in such a spirit, nonetheless their anxieties ran extremely high as they did not know what Rudd really wanted. Without prior consultations with ASEAN, he proposed the idea to form an Asia-Pacific community last June. For the past 18 months, it has generated lots of debate - both for and against - in the region, which has seldom gone through such intense brain-storming and consultative sessions on such a topic.

Rudd said his special envoy, Ambassador Richard Woolcott, had done much of the footwork: 21 countries, 85 days and discussions with more than 300 people including more than 10 ministers and eight heads of state or heads of government. Albeit parts of Woolcott's findings reaffirmed the grouping's positions, scepticism still reigns among the ASEAN bureaucrats who have a "seeing is believing" attitude.

Essentially it was the-ASEAN-comes-first thrust that the ASEAN delegates wanted to hear anyway. They know all the challenges outlined by Rudd whether they are political, security or economic in nature. Otherwise, they contended the grouping would not havde been able to survive for the past 42 years overcoming all sorts of crises.

At the end of the discussion, everybody agreed the conference was good and candid and the dialogue should continue in the future. Participants, who were officials and non-officials, known collectively as 1.5 track, based in the Asia-Pacific were divided into two groups - the first belonged to ASEAN and its supporters including China, believe in an incremental and evolutionary approach while the other group, mainly the non-ASEAN countries, is more proactive. That much was clear.

Somehow, the ASEAN delegates made up over half of overseas delegates continued to wonder what Australia has in mind in proposing such a mega-idea for the region, which is so diverse and accounts for three-quarters of the global economic world and nearly 60 percent of the world's population. Questions and views from ASEAN delegates had one pattern - they did not believe that a new regional organisation was needed at the moment to face future challenges. Despite their shortcomings, existing institutions, especially the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN plus three, East Asia Summit (EAS) including Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec), are capable of handling and coping with both regional and global issues.

In his opening speech, Rudd was succinct in taking these stances, reiterating the importance of ASEAN centrality and its success. He also stressed that there would not be any supra-national decision-making structure. Rudd's remarks immediately drew sighs of relief from the ASEAN delegates. His idea does not need an additional institution.

Having said that, Rudd set out three trial balloons using some features of the architecture that the region already has - Apec, EAS and the ARF. First, he suggested that Apec could evolve over time to include a more defined security mandate. If that is the case, India must be admitted.

Another evolving body, EAS, could expand and develop to take a broader role. The third option was to bring Apec and EAS back-to-back together which, as Rudd put it, would bring with it the benefit of a single leaders' meeting or cluster of meetings. Wide ranges of regional bodies and issues discussed - be it economic, political and security - could be fused together. In his view, the 27-member security-oriented ARF is too big to transform into a leaders' meeting.

Obviously, Rudd's Australia is eager to fulfil what he calls "activist middle-power diplomacy." Rudd has played an active role in the G-20 summit, making sure it is a platform to discuss global financial problems. | His enthusiasm over climate change is another barometer of how Australia wanted to be perceived globally.

While the ASEAN members unanimously welcome closer economic integration with Australia, they still have divergent views regarding its political and security role. While they looked back and appreciated past achievements from Down Under, they are not willing to jump on the bandwagon with Canberra at this propitious moment. His predecessors from the same party, Bob Hawke or Paul Keating, left legacies of goodwill and strong relations with the region because they had evolved over time into mutual respect and trust - allowing the two leaders to do things in the region that seemed impossible at first.

Judging from the popularity he enjoys inside his country, Rudd is going to stay in power for many years to come. He will have sufficient time to generate mutual confidence and better understanding of his ideal and Australia's agenda for the rest of region. In this respect, former prime minister John Howard failed, although he had almost a decade to do so.

At the dinner reception at Kirribilli House on Saturday night, Rudd had already started on that journey. He was at his best on the charm offensive, rendering a personal touch with the stories of his family and Australia as his country's best foods and wines were served to visiting delegates.

In coming years, Rudd's litmus test will be two-fold. First, he must show his perseverance that he is going for long-term substance not the symbolism he is often accused of. And, finally he must instil a new perception in the region that Australia is an Asian country and champions its causes - not playing second fiddle for anybody else. By Kavi Chongkittavorn The Nation Bangkok

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