Thursday, May 6, 2010
Regional Tensions Make Case for Asia-Pacific Community
Within Australia, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s call for an Asia-Pacific Community has recently been muted by a number of setbacks. Indonesia and Singapore have reacted in a highly qualified way to the proposal, and, at times, have veered close to outright rejection. The initiative also seems imperiled by recent tensions between Beijing and Canberra over the Stern Hu trial. Finally, the APC has been placed in jeopardy by increasing US-China tensions. In this context, how urgent is the implementation of the APC?
There are three main challenges that risk delaying the fulfillment of the APC: regional skeptics, the counterchallenge of the East Asian Community and the ambivalent role of China. Although these challenges are not insignificant, they can and must be overcome. International and domestic critics threaten to delay the APC’s creation. According to these critics, time is not on the side of dialogue and diplomacy. But these criticisms do not hold up under pressure. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in May 2009, Rudd assured his audience that the APC would not sideline, but be adapted from, current regional institutions, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But the prime minister correctly did not give way on the rule-based structure of the APC. He insisted that dialogue-centric summits, for all of their success, could not offset future “strategic shocks” associated with the rise of major powers such as India and China.
On a broader level, arguments that the major powers might simply opt to ignore the APC initiative, and settle the matter on their own terms, are only superficially compelling — examples of successful middle-power diplomacy abound. Therefore, rejecting the Australian strategic vision on the grounds that it is just too grand, or simply too difficult, is not adequate.
The second challenge to the APC’s timely birth is the institutional alternative of the East Asia Community, pushed in large part by Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. The EAC envisages a more restricted “Asian” architecture, probably excluding such major littoral players as the United States and Russia. Its overall features are its Asean-centrism and much more conservative approach to regional security than the APC. According to proponents of this approach, the sanctity of Asean means that any weakening of this institution could directly “give rise to intra-Asean differences and power rivalries in the region.” Following this line of reasoning, conflict would be a result of disturbing the status quo. This argument is dubious. Far from resulting from the entrenched status quo, conflict in the Asia Pacific is much more likely to be a result of the failure to transcend diplomatic “talking shops,” tackle entrenched institutional interests and support mechanisms that would halt the slide from security dilemma to open war in the region. The argument that because Asean has worked well so far, it should not be disturbed, mistakes the causation at work in the Asia-Pacific region. It is not that Asean has prevented conflict — Asean has actually been a beneficiary of a lack of conflict.
In fact, despite the sunny optimism of EAC proponents, the current interstate architecture of the Asia Pacific is ill-equipped to deal with future crises.
Australia’s 2009 Defense White Paper correctly espoused a cold-eyed view of the Asia Pacific’s immediate future. The coming Asian century will be unstable and unpredictable. China’s rise as a major regional power, whether peaceful or otherwise, will require some serious regional reorganization. All of these circumstances require the development of “a constructive Asia-Pacific security environment.” Hatoyama’s Asean-centric EAC cannot fulfil such a requirement — the development of the APC is urgently needed.
Finally, one of the main points of agreement at a December 2009 conference on the APC was that the Asia Pacific is fast becoming a point of convergence in great power interests. One of these great power interests is China. China’s ambivalence as a regional player is a serious threat to the development of the APC — it is the third challenge to be overcome. But if all other major players in the region sign up to the concept, this challenge can be conquered, as China’s foreign policy would not be served by assuming a position as the only objector to regional security architecture.
The tentative date set for the creation of an APC is 2020. In the meantime, however, the critics’ intransigence, the EAC challenge and China’s ambivalence as a regional player are only delaying the likelihood that the grouping will see the light of day by this date. A week, let alone 10 years, is a long time in politics. We cannot afford to wait that long. by Daryl Morini(From East Asia Forum)