Kevin Rudd has fluttered a tiny white flag to ASEAN on his Asia Pacific community idea. The nod — something less than a kowtow — is in the Prime Minister's recent China speech, which I examined in my previous column. It's message to ASEAN: You win.
The context for all this is the elbowing and toe stomping that has gone on since Rudd set out in mid-2008 on his quest to build a new Asia Pacific community. Lots of labels can be hung on that quest: quixotic, presumptuous, far-sighted, crazy-brave. The provocative bit was that Rudd, initially, thought his new Community/community should not be led by ASEAN.
Not surprisingly, the ASEANs have been kicking ever since. The response to Rudd has been no new summits and no new institutions.
Rudd's nod of obeisance in his China speech is a sign that, if there is any new step towards an Asia Pacific community, it will build on what ASEAN now has in place. The curtain is slowly rising on an ASEAN-plus-eight structure, with the US and Russia as the two being added to create the 'plus eight'.
The Rudd nod was a direct response to the 'plus-eight' step unveiled at the ASEAN summit this month. The summit communiqué said that the ASEAN-plus process, the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum were the institutions to be used in the building of a community in East Asia (there's that small 'c' community again). The new bit is the formal ASEAN offer to Russia and the US to join the East Asia Summit:
We encouraged Russia and the US to deepen their engagement in an evolving regional architecture, including the possibility of their involvement with the EAS through appropriate modalities, taking into account the Leaders-led, open and inclusive nature of the EAS.
'Leaders-led' means, 'please join us at the summit'.
The Hanoi communique expressed in direct terms ASEAN's determination to stay in the driver's seat. The term of choice is ASEAN 'centrality'. The ten leaders of Southeast Asia:
...stressed the importance of and determination to maintain ASEANs central role in the emerging regional architecture, taking into account fast-changing developments in regional and international situation. We agreed to adopt a two-prong approach with priority given to the acceleration of ASEANs integration and community building while intensifying ASEANs external relations and ensuring ASEANs role as the driving force in regional cooperation frameworks...We agreed that any new regional framework or process should be complementary to and built upon existing regional mechanisms and the principle of ASEANs centrality.
Kevin Rudd got the message. He responded by restating some of his Asia Pacific community language while endorsing the ASEAN structure:
I shall continue to advocate the development of regional architecture that has the right membership and mandate to address the full spectrum of challenges confronting the region - economic, political and security.
Rudd then named the essential membership for this regional architecture, which exactly matches the emerging ASEAN-plus-eight model. The Prime Minister first listed China and the US (out of alphabetical order). Then came ASEAN. And finally, the other six in the plus group: Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, and Russia. Then the nod:
The inclusion of the United States and Russia in our region's emerging architecture is fundamental to the evolution of what I call an Asia-Pacific community. In fact, so much of Australia's diplomacy has been driven by this core concern - how to integrate in particular the role of the United States in the future broad architecture of our region. In this context I welcome very much the decision of ASEAN leaders at their summit in Hanoi on 8-9 April this year to encourage the United States and Russia to deepen their engagement in evolving regional architecture.
The sound you hear is from a small flag flapping in the east wind.
Photo by Flickr user wokka, used under a Creative Commons license.