Monday, December 7, 2009

It's a slow boat to Kevin Rudd's Asia-Pacific village

For two days last week, participants at a conference in Sydney to discuss the idea of building an Asia-Pacific community took a boat from Circular Quay to Taronga Wharf, a 20-minute ride across the cove that, on a clear day like we had last week, gives you a dramatic view of the city with its most famous landmark, the Opera House.

But judging by the reaction of participants from 22 countries invited to the conference, the boat ride to the community envisioned by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will likely take a long, long time, if ever it reaches its destination. Some even doubt the boat will ever set sail, and if it does, whether it will actually leave from Sydney.

Rudd convened "The Asia Pacific - A community for the 21st Century" conference from Dec. 4-5 not only to push for his ambitious community plan, but more importantly, to hear firsthand how people in the region respond to an idea that he first broached in June 2008.

He made a compelling argument about the need for countries to take control of the direction of where the Asia-Pacific region is heading rather than allowing nature takes its course, warning that seismic shifts in economic and political balances in the region, especially with the rapid rise of China and India, mean tensions that could lead to conflicts or even wars unless they were properly managed early. Many questions emerged at the end of the meeting that brought together representatives from governments, think tanks and the media, from countries as far as India and Russia at the western end, to Canada, the United States, Mexico and Peru on the other side of the Pacific. Also involved were Indonesia and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as economic powerhouses Japan and South Korea.

There was the question about what kind of community Rudd was thinking of. While everyone recognizes that the region is growing the fastest in the world and that it is becoming more integrated through greater movement of goods and people, many participants feel that the countries are still too widely divided in values and principles, in political systems, in their stages of economic development and other factors, to have developed that sense of togetherness to be a community of sorts.
He deliberately omitted his own vision of a community, preferring to allow countries to decide together what exactly they want and how they intend to get there. In the absence of a clear vision, however, one inevitably gets the impression that this community is more responsive to events rather than one that decides its own course, a boat that follows where the wind and the rough waters take it without a clear destination, as long as it stays afloat.

The territory covered for such a community is also so wide (geographically it covers the whole world minus Europe and Africa) that the conference immediately got bogged down by questions such as who's in and who's out, and which countries should drive the process.

Should the future of the Asia Pacific be decided by the large countries? Don't small countries have any say?

And there was the question about how one gets to this community in the event of a consensus? Which boat is best suited to take the people there?
Rudd has already been forced to scrap his plan for an APC boat after his special envoy, senior Australian diplomat Richard Woolcott, reported back early in the year that there was "little appetite" among the 21 countries he consulted for a new institution, as leaders are already preoccupied with international and regional summits in their calendar.

The appetite is still not there, even after the conference, in spite of Sydney's fresh December air breeze. Rudd is now resigned to the idea of building the institution out of one of the existing regional organizations, with some modifications in terms of the membership and the mandate to meet the objectives.
He is thus reduced to three options: the annual East Asia Summit (EAS) currently involving 16 countries; the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which has an annual summit of its 21 member economies, and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), currently meeting at the ministerial level to address security challenges.

Whether eventually it is the EAS boat, the APEC boat or the ARF boat, it is still unclear whether the Australian Prime Minister will get to be captain. Most likely, he will have to share it with other would-be captains.

With so many countries involved, and given the huge disparity in views among participants at the Sydney conference, it seems that whichever boat gets chosen, it isn't likely to leave anytime soon. Rudd will need to organize a few more of these "conversations" before any consensus about his Asia-Pacific community plan emerges. Endy M. Bayuni , The Jakarta Post, Sydney

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