Monday, May 24, 2010

History shows Australia would be more successful finding friends in East Asia

SUGGESTIONS in the past week concerning the possible down-grading of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum seem curious. I was as surprised as most.

But would it make sense for Australia to put more effort into engaging East Asian or Asian regionalism rather than focusing so strongly on our long-term Asia-Pacific project? There are good reasons to continue to develop regional institutions, but the distinction between these two types of regionalism matters.

In areas such as counter-terrorism, disaster relief, organised crime, climate change, trade facilitation, the management of territorial disputes and other inter-state rivalry (including among the great powers of the region), and the general promotion of trust and transparency, there are increasing numbers of issues that require inter-state co-operation and this may be achieved more easily on a regional rather than a global scale.

Bringing together government officials to co-ordinate regional responses has obvious advantages, and regular meetings of heads of government can promote co-operation at the highest level. Discussing the building of regional institutions, some commentators take a purely functionalist view, writing of "interlocking mechanisms", "instruments" and "design faults". But regionalism needs to be considered from other perspectives as well.

Kevin Rudd expressed a functionalist view of regionalism when he proposed an Asia-Pacific community in 2008. It was necessary, he said, to establish such a community with a "regional institution that spans the entire Asia-Pacific region" and "is able to engage in the full spectrum of dialogue, co-operation and action" on economic, political and security issues. But he also stressed the need to develop a "genuine and comprehensive sense of community". This is often overlooked in Australian discussion, yet it is fair to say that the real architect, unlike the engineer, seeks to integrate structures within their environmental and cultural contexts.

The problem is that from an architectural perspective, the use of the term Asia-Pacific immediately raises historical and identity issues. To advocate an Asia-Pacific initiative is consistent with established Australian policy, and makes sense for Australia, but it also provokes influential opposition. Asia-Pacific is code for a regionalism in which the US and other non-Asian Pacific states, including Australia, can be powerful insiders. Australia and the Australian-US alliance fit comfortably here. But promoting Asia-Pacific architecture often has been a tough task and in some influential quarters in the region is seen to frustrate rather than strengthen our Asian engagement.

To take an early and unsuccessful Asia-Pacific venture with which we were closely associated in the 1960s, the Asian and Pacific Council was understood by many in the region as "a front for Western powers" (to quote a recent analysis by Amitav Acharya).

According to a contemporary British report, Australia and New Zealand were seen as being "much closer to the US and to western Europe in their way of looking at the area's problems" and the ASPAC initiative was also damaged by "excessive Australian zeal". The report was more positive about the new, explicitly Asian venture of that time, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations: it revealed "unsuspected depths of common interest in the participating [Southeast Asian] countries". As to APEC (which started in 1989), many will remember the "recalcitrant" episode of 1993, in which Paul Keating was arguing for APEC against Mahathir Mohamad's East Asian Economic Caucus. Australian commentators tended to see Mahathir as a lone opponent, but the desire for a more distinctly East Asian regional grouping, bringing together the ASEAN countries with the powerful societies of northeast Asia, was more widespread.

The past decade or so has been a difficult period for APEC despite its much-photographed annual summit. In the dramatic Asian financial crises of 1997-98 APEC disappointed many, and the general sharpening of anti-Western suspicions reinforced desires for a less US-focused form of regionalism. In the resulting East Asia initiative of 1997 the ASEAN + 3, which combines ASEAN with China, Japan and South Korea, the central place has been taken by China. The ASEAN + 3 launching of the East Asia Summit (2005) raises the question of whether this new, locally driven regionalism will be East Asian or Asian. By including India it invokes a pan-Asian, rather than merely East Asian, ideal that was influential from time to time during the previous century and was evident in the Asian Relations Conference hosted by India in 1947.

What are the prospects for Australia in the alternative regional vision? It happens we were involved in the Asian Relations Conference, and in 1974 we became ASEAN's first Dialogue Partner. In the early 1990s foreign minister Gareth Evans was praised for being sensitive to ASEAN viewpoints in his efforts to promote a broad security organisation, what became the ASEAN Regional Forum. The Coalition government took a positive and diplomatic approach to the creation of ASEAN + 3. When this grouping launched the East Asia Summit it demonstrated the potential for inclusiveness of East Asian regionalism, asking Australia and NZ along with India to join. There are careful deliberations under way as to how best the US and Russia may be brought into this process and we can expect this to be discussed when Rudd meets Barack Obama next month.

In planning strategies for moving on from Asia-Pacific to East Asian regionalism, we need to think through how East Asians think about regionalism and regional community and this brings us back to the sense of community that Australians tend to ignore. It does not mean that we have to Asianise Australia: as a society with a dominant Western, liberal values system we have much to contribute to, and gain from, this highly complex and plural Asia.

What it does mean is that in our artistic and cultural exchanges, our scientific and humanities research partnerships, our sporting competitions and media reporting just as in our many diplomatic, defence, business and education relationships we must increasingly focus on Asia, gradually confirming our place in the give-and-take conversation of the region.

The Australian Opinion

By Anthony Milner, Basham professor of Asian history, Australian National University, is a convener of the Asialink National Forum being held today at Parliament House, Canberra.

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