As the outsider, Australia’s unspoken role at meetings in the South Pacific has long been to ’throw the dead cat on the table’.

This ’dead cat’ responsibility was described to me a couple of decades ago by a South Pacific thinker who had a high regard for Australia’s role in the Islands. Not only did inviting Australians usually produce some cash to pay for the meeting, he said, but you could rely on the Australians to bluntly state the big underlying problems. After the rest of the delegates gave a wry smile at the uncouth Aussies, they could then start debating the ‘dead cat’ issue they had been politely ignoring.

Perhaps Kevin Rudd was playing ‘dead cat’ politics when he launched his idea for an Asia Pacific Community. On that reading, the announcement is something less than a diplomatic flop. Australia gets points for giving prominence and priority to a key problem that the region has been unwilling to confront. As I say, this is the kind reading. Probably the more common interpretation — coming particularly from ASEAN — is that this is a dead duck, not a dead cat.

Rudd was certainly playing big picture politics with his speech last June:

We need to have a vision for an Asia Pacific Community, a vision that embraces:

  • A regional institution which spans the entire Asia-Pacific region – including the United States, Japan, China India, Indonesia and the other states of the region.
  • A regional institution which is able to engage in the full spectrum of dialogue, cooperation and action on economic and political matters and future challenges related to security.

The vision for a Community by 2020 had quite a few moving parts, including a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific. And while the European Union was not ‘an identikit model’, the region could learn from Europe’s example.

Before embracing the dead duck interpretation, though, consider what — at a stretch — could be called the achievements of Australia’s effort in investigating this vision. The options have been clarified and some have been completely ruled out. This is progress, of a sort.

Richard Woolcott’s journey around the region as the Prime Minister’s envoy has produced one big conclusion: nobody is going to agree to create a new institution. Yes, an Asia Pacific community or Community is a fine long-term aim. But whatever is to be created is going to spring from the institutions we now have. 'No New Institutions' is the primary answer to Australia’s question.

So while the Asia Pacific Community in its Australian guise gently expires, it is time to acknowledge the clear winner from this process: the East Asia Summit. Woolcott says he has found 'enthusiasm' for the idea of a broader body for the region to deal with economic, political and strategic concerns. So, enthusiasm for the idea but no enthusiasm for a new body. Step forward the forum already created by Asia.

Just back from Washington on the  final leg of his marathon consultations, Woolcott is testifying to the US readiness to think new thoughts about Asia: 'The US is reviewing a range of foreign policies and is keen to set up a better and more multilateral framework for dealing with Asia-Pacific issues.'

Among the series of wins Hillary Clinton achieved during her Asia tour was her visit to the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta to announce that the US will sign ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Here's what Clinton told ASEAN:

Part of being a good listener and a good partner is acting on what you hear. So today, I am proud to announce that the Obama Administration will launch our formal interagency process to pursue accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. This is the first time the United States has taken this step. We will work through this process to put forward our concerns, and then work with the countries of ASEAN to resolve them so that we can achieve our goal of accession.

Clinton said signing the TAC was evidence of the US ‘smart power’ effort. The true smarts in this is that the US is getting ready to walk into the East Asia Summit. Signing ASEAN’s ‘motherhood’ treaty gets the US at the table to start talking about Asia’s multilateral security architecture for the Asia Pacific century.

China has long patted itself on the back for embracing ‘new security thinking’ in Asia, compared to the ‘old thinking’ of the US treaty system. With a few relatively simple steps, the US can step past that false dichotomy and encompass both sides of the equation. So when Kevin Rudd sits down to talk with Barack Obama in Washington, they can contemplate a US security role in the Asia Pacific that is not bound by the old hub-and-spokes model of the San Francisco treaty system. This can be a conversation about building on and complimenting the set of US bilateral treaties in Asia. Not replacing the treaties. Not scrapping the treaties. 

The real argument about acceding to the TAC is going to take place inside Washington, as acknowledged by the Clinton reference to a ‘formal interagency process’ on the TAC. The interagency argument in Washington is going to be about the exact wording of US reservations as it signs the TAC. Following the example set by Japan and Australia, the US can sign the TAC while also stating that it will have no implications for existing US security treaty obligations.

The broader negotiation with ASEAN and the other members of the EAS is where this structure should head once the US joins. Australia’s Prime Minister can offer the Obama Administration some ideas. After all, Kevin from Queensland has just been spending a bit of time tinkering with the mechanics of an Asia Pacific Community that has specific security responsibilities.