One of the old divides in Australian diplomacy is between the Northeast Asianists and the Southeast Asianists. No points for picking Kevin Rudd as a Northerner, not an ASEANist. In pushing for the Six-Party Talks to become the basis for Asia’s attempt at 'doing a Europe', Mr Rudd has put ASEAN firmly in second place. ASEAN proclaims that it must be in the driver’s seat. The Rudd position in Washington is that ASEAN isn’t driving Asia anywhere.
Mr Rudd says the Six-Party Talks could become a broad security mechanism for Asia, saying the region faces a complex and fragile security future. And Australia, always keen to help, should be an early member of such a new security structure. The Prime Minister says Asia needs to take lessons from Europe in confronting difficult security issues:
There is a certain fragility to this strategic theatre. Therefore there is a great opportunity through regional security architecture to build genuine confidence and security building measures. We're aware of what happened over time in Europe. There are some parallels with what could happen over time in East Asia.
Kevin Rudd sees the hard security problems in Asia need a Northeast Asia flavour, in contrast to some of the current approaches based in Southeast Asia, led by the the ten nations of ASEAN. The reason – he is worried that ASEAN is creating new institutions that exclude the US. Mr Rudd says the US and its alliance system have provided strategic stability in Asia for 30 years, allowing the region to focus on economics — to compete for market share rather than regional strategic superiority. But this, he warned in his Brookings speech, is changing because the US is being left out: ''The United States has been less centrally involved in the evolution of East Asian and Asia-Pacific regional architecture. There is no US-led NATO equivalent in the region.'
Mr Rudd says ASEAN has made a remarkable contribution to stable relations between its ten members in Southeast Asia. But the Prime Minister says ASEAN's recent institution-building has excluded the US: first, from the ASEAN-plus-3 summits with China, Japan and South Korea, launched a decade ago; and more recently the East Asia Summit which adds India, Australia and New Zealand to the mix.
Mr Rudd says this makes it difficult for the US to be directly involved in reforming or growing these Asian institutions. Instead, the Prime Minister wants to create a new security approach to be led by the US and Northeast Asia, not Southeast Asia.
'We should welcome any efforts by the United States, China, Japan and others to extend the Six-Party Talks mechanism into a broader security mechanism - one that would later be broadened to include other countries,' Mr Rudd said. 'Given Australia's strong economic and strategic interests in North Asia, we would see ourselves as a participant in any such mechanism at the earliest opportunity. But the opportunity should be taken to advance a broader regional security mechanism that may help remove some of the brittleness that might otherwise characterise security policy relationships across what remains a strategically fragile theatre.'
Asia, of course, already has a broad security mechanism: the ASEAN Regional Forum, created in 1994, now with 27 countries from Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the US, Canada and the European Union. The ARF is run by ASEAN along ASEAN lines. Australian has commented that the Forum has focused on confidence-building and made only modest gains in building a sense of strategic community. In pushing for a new security mechanism, with roots in Northeast not Southeast Asia, Kevin Rudd puts the ASEAN Regional Forum in second place in his hierarchy, saying it could focus on broader issues such energy security and natural disasters.
Mr Rudd says the region, led by ASEAN, is spending a lot of time on building what's called institutional architecture. The question, he says, is what will work? And what will produce real cooperation on security problems confronting Asia? To get things done, he says, the Six-Party Talks offer a new way forward, as he made clear in one of his answers after the Brookings speech:
I begin to become concerned that we are so much into design that we lose the point of rapidly getting to an end point, which is actually doing some stuff together. So, where do I come out on that? If there is political will at present, with our friends and partners in the US, Japan and China, and elsewhere, towards taking the Six-Party talks mechanism further, I say let's give that the big tick.
The presentational problem for Australia is that a big tick for Northeast Asia looks like a fail mark for ASEAN.