Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hawke and Evans in Asia plan

Rudd has considered commissioning Labor luminaries Bob Hawke and Gareth Evans to help realise his vision of an Asia Pacific Community. But such plans are now treading water until leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, jealous of its role as the hub of all key regional groupings, suggest the next step -- if there is to be one.

Australia's diplomatic doyen Richard Woolcott, whom the Prime Minister sent as his envoy to promote his idea to the region, is no longer engaged full-time, but continues to support the project on an ad hoc basis, including through speeches. While the concept is still struggling for the traction it needs in Asia, it will be on the agenda when Mr Rudd meets US President Barack Obama during his visit to Australia next month.

Rudd said in launching his vision two years ago that engaging with the region was "the third pillar of the government's foreign policy". It meant "thinking big". Mr Woolcott said yesterday the concept had made considerable progress, and the government was considering the next step. At a Sydney conference on the idea last year, former South Korean prime minister Han Seung-soo suggested an eminent persons' group be set up to advance it. But although Mr Hawke and Mr Evans were both considered to spearhead such a group, it was eventually not pursued by Canberra, partly because of disagreement about who should participate, at what level, and whether current or retired leaders.

The March visit of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono failed to provide the anticipated boost to the project. Indonesia, while supportive, is more focused on reasserting its primary role in Asean. World Bank president Bob Zoellick suggested the concept could be pursued in the corridors of G20 meetings, but Indonesia is the only G20 ASEAN nation. Of the remaining options -- in which avoiding another layer of meetings has emerged as a priority -- the most feasible is to extend the East Asia Summit to include the US and Russia, which have both already acceded to the required Treaty of Amity, and to hold that meeting alongside the APEC summit.

Renaming the EAS as ASEAN Plus Eight would achieve the same result, and would please Singapore and Malaysia. By Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific editor The Australian

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