Thursday, December 17, 2009

Rudd's Reckless Regional Rush

AUSTRALIA and Singapore enjoy a warm relationship going back to World War II. Singaporeans will never forget the sacrifices made by Australian armed forces defending Singapore, during that war, the Malayan Emergency and Konfrontasi.

Singapore and Australia share many congruent interests. During many years, Singapore has also supported Australia's engagement with the region and championed its inclusion in various ASEAN-centred regional institutions, such as the Forum for East Asia and Latin America, the East Asia Summit and the Asia-Europe Meeting.

Kevin Rudd has spoken eloquently of his vision of building the Asia-Pacific community. On December 3-5, his special envoy, Richard Woolcott, convened a Track 1.5 conference in Sydney to discuss the proposal.

I think I write for all my ASEAN colleagues when I state we went to Sydney with open minds. What we wanted from Australia was clarity on its proposal. However, we left with more questions than answers.

I was troubled by three issues: clarity, consistency and process.

Australia repeatedly said the purpose of the Sydney conference was to start a conversation about regional architecture and that Australia did not want to be prescriptive. Disappointingly, we came away with the impression that there was a prescribed outcome and the organisers tried hard to steer the conference in that direction.

One of the findings of Woolcott's extensive consultations with regional leaders was that the region had no appetite for a new institution. Notwithstanding this, the organisers tried to push the contrary view that we agreed existing institutions were inadequate and ineffective.

Australia has repeatedly praised ASEAN and reaffirmed support for the central role ASEAN plays in the regional institutions. In his opening speech, Rudd paid tribute to ASEAN's role and said the Asia-Pacific community should "embrace the region's core grouping, ASEAN".

The Prime Minister further stressed that "ASEAN, given its positive history and its contribution for the future, should be very much at the core of any future Asia-Pacific community". However, in his summing up, co-chairman Michael Wesley proposed a concert of powers and claimed there was growing support for a leaders-level co-ordinating body, which would meet annually. This concert of powers and co-ordinating body were never discussed at the conference and would presumably replace ASEAN.

Speaking at lunch, South Korea's former prime minister Han Seung-soo had put forward the idea of setting up a group of eminent persons to take the process forward. Han's proposal was not discussed in any of the three break-out sessions after the lunch. We were therefore surprised when Wesley further claimed there was strong support for Han's proposal.

The process of the conference was troubling because there was a disconnect between what was discussed in the six break-out sessions and the Australian co-chairman's summation.

In contrast, co-chairwoman Ton Ni Thi Ninh, of Vietnam, gave a balanced summary of the discussions that reflected the diversity of views and the complexity going forward.

Australia had expressed some views on the region's existing institutions and whether they could be used to evolve the Asia-Pacific community. Australia dismissed the ASEAN Regional Forum as not useful because it was too large and had the wrong membership. Australia said APEC could be restructured provided that we included India and excluded Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Latin Americans. Expelling some members from APEC is not desirable and not doable.

As for the East Asia Summit, Australia thought that it would work if the US and Russia were admitted. This then should be the focus of our future discussions.
ASEAN shares Australia's view that the world is going through a tectonic shift. The centre of gravity is moving towards Asia. Peace and prosperity will be increasingly determined by what happens in the Asia-Pacific, especially in the relations between and among the US, China, India, Japan and Russia. For this reason, Singapore supports Australia's view that the US should be involved in the region's institutions. For the past two decades, ASEAN has taken the initiative to bring these key powers, as well as other regional countries, together in various ASEAN-centred institutions and forums. The objective has been to develop mutual confidence, to reduce mutual suspicions, to deepen economic linkages and to nurture a culture of co-operation.

ASEAN is acceptable to all the stakeholders as the region's convener and facilitator because it is neutral, pragmatic and welcoming. We in ASEAN feel the grouping's long-term goal of peace and stability and the dividends obtained to date should not be minimised or marginalised. The conference in Sydney did not provide us with the clarity or reassurance we had hoped for. By Tommy Koh chairman of the Institute of Policy Studies at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

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