Barack Obama's first official visit to Australia in November was a
short stop on the way to the main event. The 2011 East Asia Summit was
about to be held in Bali and it was the first time the United States,
and Russia, would be included.
This expansion of the Summit is in large part a result of Australian
diplomacy, but this remains underappreciated.
In June 2008, on the eve of his first official visit to Asia as Prime
Minister, Kevin Rudd announced the desire to create an Asia Pacific
Community. Greg Sheridan suggested in The Australian that this was
designed to provide a wider narrative for the regional tour, dubbing
Rudd the "Mad Hatter" for his desire to centralise control over
Australia's diplomatic efforts and constantly announce new
The revelation that no other countries were briefed prior to the
announcement, and that his Special Envoy Richard Woolcott was briefed
with only two hours notice, further undermined the possibility of
pragmatic evaluation of the idea.
However, Rudd's speech clearly established two "building blocks" of
how an Asia Pacific community (APc) would look. These were the
inclusion of the United States, Japan, China, India and Indonesia in a
forum with a wide ranging agenda across economic, political and
security issues. But Rudd's speech also featured a heavy focus on the
comparative evolution of the European Union (EU) and a timeframe of
2020, both of which plagued the debate from the beginning by creating
a grandiose sense of what he was trying to achieve.
This ensured that Rudd's idea would never be decoupled from the notion
of the establishment of an EU-style body for the region, and the
continued heavy reliance on 2020 timelines by the Rudd Government
provided easy cannon fodder for critics. The tactically amateurish use
of a capital 'C' for community also fuelled the belief that Rudd was
contemplating such a union rather than simply a broader discussion, as
was implied when the capital was dropped months later. Not doing so
from the outset was a mistake.
In addition, the role of the all powerful ASEAN bloc (Association of
South East Asian Nations) was omitted in Rudd's announcement. While
Rudd has subsequently said he has been "a longstanding fan of ASEAN",
its initial exclusion signalled to many that Rudd was either proposing
a possible competitor to ASEAN or something that could potentially
sideline ASEAN altogether. However, Rudd said from the outset that
"APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Plus
Three and ASEAN itself will continue to play important roles, and
longer-term may continue in their own right or embody the building
blocks of an Asia Pacific Community."
While Rudd's idea may have been met with a heavy dose of scepticism
and criticism, it was not without basis. For many years, the Asia
Pacific has been home to what many have called an "alphabet soup with
numerical croutons" of regional institutions without any clear and
inclusive big brother.
Besides the 21 member economy grouping of the Asia Pacific Economic
Cooperation (APEC) and the ten member country grouping of ASEAN, there
is also: ASEAN+3 (APT) which brings China, Japan and South Korea into
the fold; the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) which widens it to 27 member
countries; the pre-existing East Asia Summit which was effectively APT
with the further inclusion of Australia, New Zealand and India; and
even the Six-Party Talks on North Korea. Unsurprisingly, the original
report from Woolcott concluded that the existing architecture was
Woolcott's report certainly indicated that the East Asia Summit
provided the easiest model to satisfy the prerequisites of an APc with
the inclusion of the United States, and potentially other countries
such as Russia. However, this seemed unlikely as it would require the
commitment of the United States' President to two regional forums in
Asia annually. Moreover, ASEAN was sceptical about further its their
regional forums, having just added India, Australia and New Zealand.
Many were also sceptical as to what the EAS achieved with some
labelling it "dinner followed by sixteen speeches".
Another logical option would have been expanding APEC's agenda from
economic matters, but this featured little in Woolcott's report. This
was surprising given Woolcott's role in establishing APEC and also
given his consultations only included the existing 21 APEC members.
This idea would have required expanding APEC membership to include
India, but this had been a long simmering debate within the forum
itself. While India's inclusion in APEC has long been supported by
Australia, Japan and the United States, it has been met with fierce
opposition from others, such as the Philippines. China would have also
likely been uncomfortable with the inclusion of Taiwan at any forum
relating to regional security rather than economics. Therefore, the
difficulties of membership in APEC seemed to suggest that, even with
the existing buy-in of the White House, the East Asia Summit proved a
better vehicle through which to progress the possibility of an APc.
Aside from existing architecture, the debate also brought to the
surface a much deeper discussion of what would constitute the 'Asia
Pacific' in itself. As mentioned, Woolcott's consultations were only
extended to APEC economies, which are presently defined largely by
those with a border lapping the Pacific Ocean. However, aside from
India there are many other pending applications for membership of
APEC, including from Mongolia, Pakistan, Laos, Bangladesh, Costa Rica,
Colombia, Panama and Ecuador largely on the basis of their heavy
business activities in the region. As Australia's Shadow Foreign
Minister Julie Bishop said at the time "If all the Pacific states are
included that must include all the countries with a border on the
Pacific Ocean including the United States. Then you get to Latin
America and South America, are they to be included? If you look on the
other side of Asia, is Taiwan to be included? Is Burma to be included?
If India is to be in it would Saudi Arabia? Iran? Iraq?"
Woolcott's report concluded that while there was interest in Rudd's
idea for a more all encompassing agenda for dialogue within the
region, there was "little appetite" for a new institution. Many
commentators, including Bernard Keane from Crikey! suggested this was
the "death knell" for the idea, but Rudd only redoubled his efforts
convening a one-and-a-half track dialogue in Sydney in December 2009
for the region's leading thinkers and diplomats. In the months leading
up to the conference, Rudd continued to press the idea to regional
leaders, including through the rare honour of being the keynote
speaker to the Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore, and having
his idea included briefly in the Communiqué of the 2009 APEC Summit
and discussed at the accompanying CEO Summit which Rudd addressed.
Rudd also used his address at the East Asia Summit in Thailand that
year to brief regional leaders on the idea. However, he was
overshadowed by the Japanese Prime Minister floating a competing idea
for an East Asian Community or trade bloc based on the East Asia
Summit or the APT, which seemed to deliver more tangible outcomes to
Throughout, Rudd's idea was continually beset by heavy criticism from
both domestic and regional constituencies. The Australian newspaper
sought to undermine the idea at every opportunity, focussing on the
seemingly unachievable concept of creating an "Asian-EU" as one
headline read. Front-page column space was dedicated to menial
details on whether visiting heads of government supported the idea or
not, regardless of whether it was on the agenda for their discussions.
The coverage also failed to mention the support of countries such as
the United States and Thailand for Rudd's idea. Regionally, critics
such as Barry Desker, the head of Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies, described the idea as "dead in the water" and
members of the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore's Institute of
Southeast Asian Studies called it "a dangerous concept" in an opinion
piece for The Bangkok Post and the Singapore Strait Times. Rudd also
came under heavy criticism for not meeting regularly with Woolcott; a
subsequent essay released by Australian journalist David Marr in
mid-2010 quoted Woolcott as saying "there comes a point when big ideas
need prime ministerial time, and it isn't there. It's a disjunction."
All this distracted from the bigger picture.
However, Rudd's idea was buoyed by the announcement in late 2009 by
the United States Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell that the
United States would "hang back a little bit" and wait and see how the
regional architecture evolved before taking a position. With the
election of the self-described "first Pacific President" a year
earlier, this seemed the first definitive statement that there was
interest from Washington in heightening their involvement in the
region's architecture. Diplomatic cables released subsequently by
WikiLeaks reveal this was in large part a consequence of Rudd's
sustained advocacy. This signal from Washington cannot be
understated, and provided the catalyst for ASEAN to seriously
contemplate ways the United States could be brought into the region's
institutions. An invitation to join the East Asia Summit was the
logical response. Sinagapore also floated an idea to establish an
ASEAN+8 grouping that would meet every three years on the back of APEC
with effectively the same membership of the East Asia Summit but with
the inclusion of Russia and the United States.
By the April ASEAN Meeting in Hanoi in 2010, the United States
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made clear the United States'
interest in joining an expanded East Asia Summit, calling it the
"foundational security and political institution for Asia". A model
suggested by Stanford University's Donald K. Emmerson was adopted by
Clinton whereby the United States would "ease into" the East Asia
Summit by dispatching the Vice President or herself in 2010, to be
followed by the President in 2011. ASEAN responded positively but
ensured its centrality was on display by stating in the Forum's
communiqué that "any new regional framework or process should be
complementary to and built upon existing regional mechanisms and the
principle of ASEAN's centrality".
While Rudd's original announcement seemed predicated on the
establishment of a broader regional union, there is little doubt the
ensuing debate provided the framework for the Obama Administration's
decision to heighten their engagement in Asia's regional architecture.
Rudd quickly seized on the ASEAN and US announcements, saying "the
inclusion of the United States and Russia in our region's emerging
architecture is fundamental to the evolution of what I call an
Asia-Pacific community. In fact, so much of Australia's diplomacy has
been driven by this core concern - how to integrate in particular the
role of the United States in the future broad architecture of our
After his demise as Prime Minister, his successor Julia Gillard also
reiterated this stance, saying that the United States' involvement in
the East Asia Summit would achieve what she called "the practical
objectives" of Rudd's plan. However, Australia's role in helping
establish the environment for an expanded EAS to become a reality is
unlikely to ever be fully recognised, given the political
mismanagement and ensuing opposition to Rudd's original announcement.
Either way, the inclusion of the United States and Russia in the
annual heads of government level East Asia Summit signals an important
step in the development of the region's architecture. Furthermore, it
signals an important step in ensuring the commitment and time of the
United States' presidency to the region through two annual gatherings.
As Hilary Clinton has said "half of diplomacy is showing up."
Thom Woodroofe is an associate fellow of the Asia Society based in
Australia. He has interviewed both Australian Foreign Minister Kevin
Rudd & Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on the Asia Pacific
Photo: The White House President Barack Obama – Photo of the Day
November 2011 -