Rudd’s vision

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, arriving in Japan Sunday for a four-day visit, delivered a foreign policy address on Wednesday of last week that has sparked a major debate in Australia about the future of Asian multilateralism.

In the speech, Mr. Rudd laid out his vision for an Asia-centered Australian foreign policy that sounds remarkably like post-cold war foreign policy thinking Japan. His three pillars for Australian foreign policy — the US-Australia alliance, global multilateralism, and regional multilateralism — are quite similar to Prime Minister Fukuda’s recent foreign policy address, which reaffirmed the US-Japan alliance but sought to embed it in a cooperative regional framework. Indeed, substitute “Japan” for “Australia” in this speech, especially at the beginning when Mr. Rudd discusses domestic changes that must be made to ensure that Australia remains competitive in the region, and this is a more than adequate policy speech to put in the mouth of a Japanese official — making my point that Australia and Japan find themselves in a similar position today.

In any case, the crux of the speech was the third pillar, cooperation in Asia. Mr. Rudd opened this section of his remarks with the now familiar litany illustrating the growing importance of Asia and the attendant challenges (changing demographics, growing resource and energy demand, lingering security flashpoints). He is right to emphasize the need for effective multilateral mechanisms: bilateral relationships and mini-lateral groups that include only democracies (and only a handful of democracies at that) will not be able to solve the region’s challenges. Accordingly, he called for a “Asia Pacific Community,” a new organization that includes all the region’s power (i.e., an East Asian Summit that includes the US) and covers the whole range of political, security, and economic issues facing the region in the coming decades. Perhaps consciously borrowing from Fukuda Yasuo, Mr. Rudd spoke of an “open” Asia-Pacific region.

He might be on to something. His APC would likely be bigger than the EAS but smaller than APEC, meaning that it would include the US — still a “resident” Asian power, as argued by Robert Gates in Singapore last week — but would be less unwieldly than APEC, which still has yet to prove itself an effective organization for addressing Asian challenges. (Paul Keating, the Australian prime minister who worked hard to create the APEC leaders’ meeting, defended his creation in The Australian in response to Mr. Rudd’s speech, in the process demolishing the straw man of a sovereignty-pooling Asia Pacific Union similar to the European Union, a model explicitly rejected by Mr. Rudd in his speech. Meanwhile, I would be more impressed with Mr. Keating’s defense of APEC if it were written by someone other than the man who pushed for the creation of its most significant feature.) But, then again, Asia might be best served by multiple smaller organizations. How will an APC solve Northeast Asia’s problems? Might not Northeast Asia be best served by a standing forum growing out of the six-party talks, as desired by Chris Hill and others? Won’t Asia be best served by overlapping multilateral circles, ASEAN + 3 for economic issues that span Northeast and Southeast Asia, EAS (or APC) for transregional issues, and APEC for transpacific discussions, with a smattering of functional organizations to address environmental, security, and other problems? No single effective organization can meet all of the region’s needs; an alphabet soup of multilateral mechanisms is unavoidable. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it may increase the odds of the region’s powers actually solving problems. (Allan Gyngell, executive director of the Lowy Institute, made a similar point here, calling himself a “deconstructionst” on Asia-Pacific multilateral institutions.)

Meanwhile, looking ahead to this week’s meetings in Japan, Mr. Rudd emphasized the importance of Australia’s relationship with Japan — but in contrast to his predecessor (and Mr. Fukuda’s predecessor, for that matter), Mr. Rudd focused on cooperation on global problems, especially climate change, development, and non-proliferation, and bilateral economic cooperation. In case there were any doubt, the “quad” is dead. Australia under Kevin Rudd will not be party to an Asian NATO designed to contain China.

In short, Mr. Rudd and Mr. Fukuda should have a lot to discuss this week. Both are looking to shift their countries’ foreign policies from centering on their alliances with the US to new approaches that embed the alliances in their Asia policy, lessening the tension between the ties with their biggest security partners and their most significant economic partner(s).

I suspected in November when Mr. Rudd took over for John Howard just after Mr. Fukuda replaced Abe Shinzo, it would be a new beginning for the Australia-Japan relationship and for the region as a whole. It is still too early to tell whether this is the beginning of a shift — both leaders will have to convince their successors to commit to their visions, and it is unclear what the US and China, among others, think of their ideas — but it may yet prove to be a fortunate coincidence that Mr. Rudd and Mr. Fukuda are in office at the same time.

(For more commentary on Mr. Rudd’s speech, definitely check out The Interpreter, the Lowy Institute’s excellent group blog.)

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