Singapore: Kevin Rudd has admitted defeat on his Asia Pacific Community and moved on to contemplate the glorious future of the Asia Pacific community. The Shangri-La speech was an excellent example of how a politician cuts his or her losses while moving on proclaiming progress. Throughout the printed text, the reference was to an Asia Pacific community (APc).

I agree with Rory that it was one of Rudd’s better foreign policy performances. But in coming to Singapore, the Prime Minister had some ground to make up.

Start from the fact that last year Rudd was unusually ungainly in needlessly affronting the ASEANs. He began by musing about making the Six-Party Talks the key regional security institution of the future, then upped the stakes by launching his Community idea — oops, make that community — without any preparatory work in Asia. The ASEANs have been making him pay ever since.

I joked to a couple of ASEAN delegates after Rudd’s speech that he had three messages for them:

  1. I love ASEAN.
  2. Australia loves ASEAN.
  3. And, by the way, did I tell you we love ASEAN?

Rudd did some of the symbolic things necessary. He had meetings with both the Mentor Minister, Lee Kuan Yew and the Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong. So Rudd touched all bases during his flying visit. He communed with the Father, the Son and the spirit of ASEAN.

In his speech, Rudd finally ditched any attempt to foist a new institution on the Asia Pacific. In other words, he conceded defeat on one of his starting points from last year. As Rudd put it: ‘No one wants more meetings. There is no appetite for additional institutions.’ So, nothing new. We’ll work with what already exists. And that means dealing with what ASEAN has created.

The Prime Minister’s speech puts ASEAN back at the centre where — rightly or wrongly — the Association holds some veto rights. Rudd explicitly expressed this ASEAN role:

An APc could be seen as a natural broadening of the processes of confidence and community building in Southeast Asia led by ASEAN, while ASEAN itself would of course remain central to the region and would also be an important part of any future Asia Pacific community.

Lavishing praise on ASEAN, the Prime Minister can perhaps have some confidence that the region may be willing to turn up to his one-and-a-half track conference at the end of the year ‘to further explore the idea of an Asia Pacific community.’ Mark this as adept politics. It might even be useful diplomatically. The Prime Minister concedes defeat on one front and then quickly moves on.

The speech by the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, showed where the real game changer momentum is coming from. The US is conceding that the existing institution which will be at the heart of an Asia Pacific community will be the East Asia Summit created by ASEAN.

Following the lines used by Hillary Clinton when she visited Jakarta, Gates said on the last page of his speech: ‘We are studying possible accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation — which demonstrates our willingness to take regional norms into account as we consider our relationships across the globe.’

And just to underline that ‘regional norms’ bit, Gates concluding paragraph included these lines: 'We have from time to time made mistakes, including at times being arrogant in dealing with others. But we always correct course.’

Signing the TAC opens the way for the US to join the East Asia Summit. And then the work on an AP community/Community really enters an interesting phase. Not least, if the US starts to play nice, the Asians are going to have to start to think about where the game is really heading.

Photo courtesy of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.