Speech by Ambassador Rod Smith
Roundtable Discussion on the Future of Asia Pacific Regional Architecture
29 April 2010
I’m honoured today to have been invited to address this roundtable discussion on the future of the Asia Pacific regional architecture. I want to start by thanking the DFA for organising the roundtable on an issue that is obviously important for the countries of the Asia-Pacific region.
It is now almost two years since Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd first put forward the idea of an Asia Pacific community.
In the time since, a great deal has been said and written about this issue. Some of it has been sceptical, some of it supportive, all of it legitimate and relevant.
I’m sure many of you will be aware that when he first raised the idea, PM Rudd said that he wanted our region to begin a conversation about where we wanted our regional institutions to be in 2020.
His intention was to stimulate that conversation about how to maximise the region’s dynamism, and to manage the challenges that its dynamism would bring.
So the debate that has followed – and of which today’s roundtable discussion is part – is very welcome. In fact the extent to which regional governments, academics, organisations, commentators, businesspeople and others have joined the debate is itself an affirmation of the relevance and timeliness of the issue.
And let me say at the outset how much we appreciate the Philippines’ very positive and constructive contributions to this debate and to our own thinking on this issue – in discussions between President Arroyo and PM Rudd, Secretary Romulo and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, and through the contributions of the Philippine participants in the Sydney conference.
The starting point for the APc idea was an acknowledgement that, as the world’s centre of strategic and economic gravity shifts to the Asia-Pacific region, the countries that are part of this region have a fundamental interest in working together to shape regional cooperative mechanisms and processes – the regional architecture – in a way that best serves the region’s needs.
Let me elaborate a little on some of the underpinning dynamics.
On average, our region’s economic growth has been outpacing other regions for many years. APEC’s 21 member economies represent approximately half the world’s GDP and trade.
This economic power also underpins military modernisation and contributes to political and strategic weight. The Asia-Pacific region is home to the world’s five largest militaries: the United States, Russia, China, India and North Korea.
The implications of this historic shift towards the Asia Pacific are a work in progress. No one can say with certainty what the new international or regional order will look like, except that it will never be static.
But it is clear that with the rise of the Asia-Pacific region comes a host of difficult and cross-cutting common challenges, some of which have been with us for years, others of which are more recent.
The global economic crisis has vividly highlighted the need to work together towards meaningful long term responses to economic challenges, by entrenching good economic policy and structural reform and cooperating to maximise trade and investment flows, critical drivers of economic growth.
Recent natural disasters have starkly reminded us that the countries adversely affected will often need significant and rapid assistance to alleviate human suffering and to begin the process of recovery and reconstruction.
Terrorist and criminal networks continue to present challenges that cross national boundaries and exploit vulnerabilities.
Likewise, people trafficking and smuggling still pose a significant challenge to our region, undermining the integrity of immigration and border management systems in ways that impinge on national security and interests.
The region contains a number of latent security problems, some of which are leftovers of past conflicts – for example on the Korean Peninsula – others which stem from past grievances and unresolved territorial disputes.
And we face emerging challenges such as climate change, competition for scarce resources and other non-traditional security threats.
Against this background, as PM Rudd put it, regional countries cannot simply assume that peace, harmony and concord are pre-determined. The prospects for change are great and countries need actively to shape their regional future.
Of course, we’re not starting with a blank slate. The region has been well served to date by existing institutions, starting with the extraordinary success of ASEAN and continuing with APEC, the ARF and the East Asia Summit.
Our interest in fostering a discussion about regional architecture is not in any way a criticism of existing institutions. Far from it. Each of these institutions has evolved to meet changing needs and all continue to have an important role to play.
But the fact is that 35 years after the end of war in Indo-China, 30 years after the start of China’s reform policies and 20 years since the end of the Cold War, our region is still without a mechanism or organisation with a membership and a mandate broad enough to encompass the full range of contemporary political, economic, security and other challenges it faces.
None of the groupings in the current architecture are comprehensive in membership, scope or purpose.
APEC brings together a broad range of Asia-Pacific countries, but India’s absence means that it does not include all the key players relevant to the region’s economic prospects and future security.
Likewise, the East Asia Summit is an increasingly productive forum of key regional countries with the potential to play a significant role in building a strong East Asian community. But the absence of the United States – recognised by all as a critical contributor to regional security – limits the EAS.
There is as yet no leaders-level meeting where all of the key regional leaders can gather to discuss the full array of both trade and investment issues as well as political, security and strategic issues confronting our region.
It is this absence that the Asia Pacific community concept seeks to address.
An Asia-Pacific community would bring together all major regional countries in a single forum at Leaders' level with a view to enhancing cooperation on economic, political, security and strategic issues.
It could encourage further economic and financial integration.
It could foster a culture of deeper collaboration and transparency in security matters.
It could drive cooperation on the range of transnational challenges, building on structures already in place to foster a sense of community with habits and patterns of cooperation.
And so Prime Minister Rudd’s vision is that the countries of the Asia-Pacific should actively seek to shape the future of regional institutions, and not be captive to the vicissitudes of change.
The Prime Minister has also emphasised that the region does not need a supra-national decision making structure, an additional institution or a further leaders’ meeting.
Instead, regional countries need to discuss how to “evolve an Asia Pacific region from our existing regional institutions”.
We sought to take this process forward through a process of broad-ranging consultation in the region by a Special Envoy, former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Dick Woolcott (also coincidentally a former Ambassador to the Philippines).
Australia continued this regional conversation by hosting a conference in Sydney in December 2009, involving more than 140 senior academics, commentators and government officials from around the region, including five participants from the Philippines.
The conference was successful in taking forward – in a way that had not been occurring to the extent necessary – an exchange of views about Asia Pacific institutional arrangements.
Views at the conference were often divergent, but were overwhelmingly constructive and considered. All contributed to shaping our collective thinking about how to optimise regional architecture.
So: what next?
We’re often asked what model we have in mind.
The Prime Minister has made clear that he is not wedded to a particular model.
Quite deliberately, we haven’t approached this prescriptively.
But as one country involved in the debate we do have views about the shape of the architecture.
First, it must engage all key countries that make up our region.
So it must include the major powers, including the US, China, India, Japan and Russia.
And it must embrace ASEAN as the region’s core grouping. The Prime Minister gave particular emphasis to this in his speech to the Sydney conference when he said (and I quote): “ASEAN, given its positive history and its contribution for the future, should be very much at the core of any future Asia Pacific community”.
Second, an Asia Pacific community must be able to traverse all of the major questions that affect our region - political, economic, and strategic.
Third, it must shape the habits of transparency, trust and foster the instinct of cooperation.
And fourth, an Asia Pacific community must meet at leaders' level.
Only leaders can traverse the breadth of fields across which our opportunities and challenges will be played out.
Only leaders can fully connect the economic and strategic, the environmental and the political.
Only leaders can bring the strategic dimension to thinking that will be needed to manage the challenges that are likely to confront us.
Leaders are, in fact, already very much engaged in this debate about regional architecture.
Let me say in this context that the Australian Government welcomes the outcomes of the ASEAN summit in Hanoi on 8-9 April, at which ASEAN leaders encouraged the United States and Russia to deepen their engagement in evolving regional architecture, including through possible involvement with the East Asia Summit (EAS).
We know from Secretary Clinton’s speech in Honolulu in January that the United States is consulting with others in the region on how it “might play a role in the East Asia Summit”. Russia has also made known its interest in joining the EAS.
We understand that at the Hanoi Summit ASEAN foreign ministers were tasked by their leaders to consider ways to improve existing architecture, including possible expansion of the EAS or an ASEAN+8 leaders’ meeting.
For Australia this is a welcome development. Prime Minister Rudd has said that he sees the EAS as one possible option for building an Asia Pacific community. An ASEAN+8 leaders’ meeting would be another.
Australia is very much encouraged by the heightened focus on issues of regional architecture that has developed over the last almost two years since PM Rudd first raised the Asia-Pacific community idea.
We remain of the view that the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century require fresh thinking about our regional engagement and our regional institutions, and we look forward to cooperating closely with our friends in ASEAN and in the region more broadly in helping to take this very important process forward.