The good news for Kevin Rudd's proposal to create a new gathering of Asia-Pacific countries is that it's taking off. The idea, inspired by the successful integration of the long-warring states of Europe into the European Union, would start with a leaders'-level summit capable of dealing with the full gamut of problems.
The body Rudd imagines could address everything from people-smuggling, terrorism, trade wars and territorial disputes to food and fuel.
The bad news for Rudd is that the idea taking off is not necessarily the one he had in mind. When Rudd first pitched the concept of an ''Asia-Pacific Community'' in a speech in June last year, he described it as ''a regional institution which spans the entire Asia-Pacific region - including the United States, Japan, China, India, Indonesia'', South Korea and New Zealand and all the countries of South-East Asia.
Leading an angry outpouring against the idea was Rudd's predecessor as Labor prime minister.
Paul Keating said it was unachievable and inappropriate for the Asia-Pacific to model its architecture on Europe's, where nations agreed to pool some of their sovereignty to solve common problems: ''God knows, it has taken the Chinese 350 years of the modern age to truly recover their sovereignty - I do not see them sharing much of it with anyone else. And Japan remains one of the most insular, monocultural countries in the world.''
The new Japanese Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, proposed the idea of a new regional body - modelled on the European Union - to the Chinese President on their first meeting last month. ''I told him I would like to form an East Asian community by overcoming differences'' - among them a territorial dispute over oil and gas fields under the East China Sea - said Hatoyama.
''I said we should make it a sea of fraternity instead of a sea of disputes.''
The Chinese President, Hu Jintao, gave a lukewarm response. It was not an enthusiastic embrace, but it was enough to encourage Hatoyama, who continues to push the idea.
The problem is that Hatoyama's vision has a glaring contrast with Rudd's. While Rudd sees the US as a central member of his Asia-Pacific community, Hatoyama's East Asian community pointedly shuts America out. Indeed, Hatoyama's project is deliberately structured to create an alternative to the US, not a forum for it.
Hatoyama's proposal was a shock to Japan's own bureaucracy and an affront to Washington. The new Japanese leader had no idea about Rudd's earlier proposal.
Hatoyama's plan, rather than being in any way modelled on Rudd's, was actually the resurrection of an idea assumed to be long dead - Mahathir Mohamad's East Asian Caucus, colloquially known as the Caucus without Caucasians. In 1989 the then Malaysian prime minister proposed a gathering that excluded the US, Australia and New Zealand.
One of the hallmarks of Hatoyama's centre-left Democratic Party of Japan is its effort to distance Tokyo from its long-standing ally across the Pacific.
In an essay published in August, Hatoyama complained that ''in the post-Cold War period, Japan has been continually buffeted by the winds of market fundamentalism in a US-led movement that is more usually called globalisation''.
''In the fundamentalist pursuit of capitalism people are treated not as an end but as a means. Consequently, human dignity is lost.''
Hatoyama had premonitions of the death of US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific: ''The financial crisis has suggested to many that the era of US unilateralism may come to an end. It has also raised doubts about the permanence of the dollar as the key global currency.''
And the challenger to the US dollar? Hatoyama's plan for an East Asian community includes a currency union.
The Hatoyama proposal has gathered momentum with the support of Indonesia and South Korea, and - so far - the acquiescence of China.
Since its first appearance, Hatoyama's vision has changed shape. His Foreign Minister, Katsuya Okada, said the group would include Australia, New Zealand and India.
But Uncle Sam remains off the guest list. Washington is deeply unhappy. Okada said the US might be able to be included at some future date.
Can Rudd's proposal be reconciled with Hatoyama's? The two men had a chance to discuss this at their first meeting, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly last month. But they did not discuss this key point, an official said.
Rudd's special envoy for the Asia-Pacific community, the veteran diplomat Richard Woolcott, says ''we're not unhappy about the Japanese idea because it's helped stimulate discussion. It's good that both the Rudd and Hatoyama governments are considering how regional co-operation can best be advanced''.
The Rudd Labor Government is moving to advance its idea by convening a big conference in Sydney from December 3 to 5.
The invitations to all 21 countries have just gone out. Each is invited to send senior officials plus some non-government experts, making it a so-called one-and-a-half-track meeting. This means it's not strictly an official gathering and allows for flexibility and open discussion.
The Rudd plan will have to compete with the Hatoyama vision, it seems. This will be the first dispute for the new body to resolve.
Peter Hartcher is the Herald's international editor.
3 comments so far
We've heard this before... last time they called it the 'Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere'. We were invited that time too.