Kevin Rudd Brings Order to Asia

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It was a glittering occasion at the Prime Minister's residence at Kirribilli last Friday night. Kevin Rudd entertained about 100 of the most influential foreign policy makers in the Asia-Pacific, gathered in Sydney to discuss the Rudd initiative for an Asia-Pacific community.

Rudd recounted the criminality in his background. Way back in 1788 one Thomas Rudd was jailed for stealing a pair of shoes.

Suggesting that the Indians there would appreciate the way British justice worked in colonial days, Rudd recounted the Old Bailey trial in which Thomas Rudd was accused by a maid, and the maid seemed an honest girl, so Rudd was transported to Australia for seven years.

Rudd went back to England in 1795 but was arrested and sent for trial at the Old Bailey again in 1799, becoming, in the present-day Rudd's words "perhaps the only convict in all our history to be transported twice". "This criminality," Rudd said, "was a great training for politics." All the Asians laughed.

Rudd had a touch, a word, a phrase, for almost every nationality, and many of the individuals, in the audience. I have never heard Rudd to better effect.

When Rudd first announced the Asia-Pacific community idea 18 months ago, I thought it was under-prepared and there had been insufficient consultation with key players in the region. Moreover, the idea of a new regional body when we already have so many ineffective bodies, seemed improbable. But the debate has now evolved so that Rudd is sponsoring a region-wide conversation not on a new body, but on how to rationalise and improve the existing institutions.

Rudd's justification is that no existing body deals with both security and economic issues and brings together all the main players, by which he means the US, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The debate on this has become complex and tricky but the prevailing consensus at the conference, and across the region, is that the institutional arrangements need repair.

The two main ideas now are either expand APEC by adding India and allow it to deal explicitly with security as well as economics, or expand the East Asia Summit by bringing in the US and Russia.

Under George W. Bush, Washington did well in Asia, but its one weakness was regional architecture. Condoleezza Rice didn't even attend two of the ASEAN foreign ministers' meetings on her watch.

Barack Obama's Asia team came into office with the clear idea that they wanted to be much more involved in regional architecture. The US signed ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Co-operation, and Obama said the US wanted to be much more closely associated with the EAS.

Then Japan's new Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, suggested an Asian community which might not include America. US-Japan diplomacy is extraordinarily intense and complex right now.

The whole nature of the US-Japan alliance is potentially up for grabs. Washington has been energetic in trying to bed down its alliance with Japan. The Hatoyama suggestion has suddenly made the Rudd idea absolute top of the pops in Washington.

Then there is China. Undoubtedly Beijing's preferred regional organisation at the moment is ASEAN plus three (China, Japan, South Korea). For the Chinese this has the wonderful attribute of excluding America, India and us. However, the Chinese are signalling a willingness to go along with the APC. They want a good relationship with the US, with India, and even with us.

South Korea has been the most important backer of the APC idea. Rudd spoke to South Korea's President, Lee Myung-bak, about this at the East Asia summit in Thailand recently.

Lee expressed regret that he couldn't get to Rudd's conference himself, but sent as his special envoy the former South Korean prime minister and foreign minister, Han Sung Soo. Han's lunchtime address on the Friday was a landmark.

Han made two key judgments: first, that the current regional architecture must be restructured; second, that the region should establish an eminent persons' group to suggest ways to do it.

Australia's old friend, Singapore, is the most hostile to the whole enterprise, and this was evident in the discussions in Sydney. Singapore is seriously disgruntled that it is not a member of the G20 and it sees the Asia-Pacific community idea as moving the centre of regional institutional gravity away from ASEAN, where it often leads.

But the hard truth, and I say this with regret as one who has loved and written about ASEAN for decades, is that ASEAN is at a low ebb. It cannot seriously pretend that it sets any international norms when it has Burma as a member in good standing. And the economic story has moved north and west, as has the security story.

The two states which most obviously represent some sort of ASEAN success at the moment, in their vastly different ways, are Indonesia and Vietnam.

The Singaporeans are also worried that the Indonesians may pursue a broader policy, leading ASEAN but also moving beyond ASEAN. Indonesia is a member of the G20 and increasingly a big player on the global stage. Notwithstanding Singapore's hesitations, the most enlightened minds in ASEAN see the APC as a way of keeping ASEAN in the action. If ASEAN insists on dominating, then the APC could take a form even less agreeable to the Singaporeans.

I wouldn't be surprised if Rudd and Lee put their heads together, even as soon as the sidelines of the Copenhagen summit, and, so long as they have Jakarta's support, convene an eminent persons' group. One of Rudd's strategic ambitions is to secure the US in the region. This may not be the sexiest issue in international affairs, but it is intensely important. It may be the fruit of a criminal mind, or at least a criminal gene, but, like a convict on a ticket-of-leave, it is gaining respectability.


Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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