Rudd and the APC – dead in the water?

I’d like to draw NM readers’ attention to whether Kevin Rudd’s vision for an Asia Pacific Community would not be “dead in the water.”

Here is an interesting and well researched analysis on Rudd and the APC with an ASEAN perspective written by Malaysiakini columnist Josh Hong.

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Less than three years into the job, Kevin Rudd was forced to step down in a bloodless coup as prime minister of Australia. It was a surprise for sure, but not quite a shock given that his proposed mining tax had made him deeply unpopular.

Perhaps the Australian Labor Party took a leaf from its sister party in Britain. Labour there had dithered over whether to dethrone Gordon Brown to salvage the party’s dwindling fortunes, before deciding to stick with him. Yet, it failed to stop both the party and the leader from being politically routed.

NONEWhen Rudd (left) won the mandate in a landslide victory in November 2007, there were high hopes in the country and abroad. Australians sighed with relief now that a younger face with fresher ideas was in, while Asian countries in general welcomed a leader in Canberra that was keen to strengthen ties in the region.

China, in particular, was pleased with Rudd’s impeccable Mandarin, although some in the Communist Party were concerned over his past interest in Beijing’s human rights records.

Yes, Rudd’s Honours thesis, submitted in 1980, was entitled Human Rights in China: the Case of Wei Jingsheng. But he completely ignored Wei when the most famous Chinese dissident, often referred to as the Sakharov of China, visited Sydney in September 2007 for an APEC forum. As Rudd’s prospects of assuming power were looking up, it would be imprudent for him to touch on Beijing’s raw nerve.

But it was Rudd’s concept of an Asia-Pacific Community (APC) that caught the attention of Asian leaders. Mooted in early 2008, APC was supposed to be a mechanism to pursue economic cooperation in tandem with explicit efforts to resolve security disputes in the region, spanning the entire Asia-Pacific rim.

Unlike Asean or APEC, which seeks to foster trust and harmony through the creation of a gigantic trade zone, APC was meant specifically to enhance regional security by putting in place a sort of early warning system, with economic ties a major tool to that end.

Community resistance

Little wonder that APC hit a snag immediately. In announcing the proposal, Rudd had several flashpoints in mind: Kashmir, the Taiwan Strait, and the Korean Peninsula. It does not take a genius to find out these are all complex issues beyond the reach of a regional framework.

The fight over Kashmir is deeply rooted in the decades-old animosity between two subcontinental powers who are dead against outside interference as it would undermine their sacrosanct adherence to national sovereignty. The same goes for the Taiwan Strait, which China sees as its own internal affair.

As for the Korean Peninsula, the key stakeholders are the two Koreas, Japan, the United States, China and Russia, not a hodgepodge of regional lightweights.

asean map 081205Within Asean, Indonesia has never been favourable to the proposition since APC, if anything, would only weaken the Southeast Asia grouping. At a workshop in Jakarta last weekend, I could see how the Indonesian participants (including Agus Widjojo who is an influential security reform advisor) took pride in their democratic achievements since 1998, but also their strong position that Indonesia must be in the driving seat of Asean.

Two years after APC was announced, Malaysia is yet to make any concrete response to it. While an official view is not available at this time, it is nevertheless clear that the issue is not on the top of Wisma Putra’s agenda.

It does not mean Malaysia does not value Australia. In fact, ever since Mahathir Mohammad stepped down, the bilateral relations have improved by leaps and bounds. But what Malaysia is concerned about is whether or not APC as a framework would actually permit the grouping to intervene in the domestic affairs of a member country.

Again at the Jakarta workshop last weekend, nearly all the participants (made up largely of lawmakers, including five from Malaysia) identified the sacrosanct principle of non-interference as among the biggest obstacles to making Asean a more coherent and effective organization.

suhartoIf this is the case, what more huddles would APC face especially when the memories of Australia’s alleged involvements in Indonesia’s 1965 coup that resulted in Suharto’s (right) iron-rule and the East Timor invasion in 1975 are still fresh. More importantly, APC is also popularly viewed as a platform for the US to exert greater role in the region in collaboration with Australia.

But it was Singapore’s objection to the APC idea that somewhat surprised the Rudd administration. The island state has long been a staunch ally of the West, but APC, if materialised, could potentially sharpen the tensions and conflicts – currently under control – among the regional powers. Undeterred, Rudd made the effort to revive the concept at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last month.

Still, Barry Desker, dean of the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, had already described APC as ‘dead in the water’. Now that Rudd has been overthrown in Australia’s Night of the Long Knives, the chances of it being followed through by his assassin, a decisive but ruthless Julia Gillard, seem pretty remote indeed.

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JOSH HONG studied politics at London Metropolitan University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A keen watcher of domestic and international politics, he longs for a day when Malaysians will learn and master the art of self-mockery, and enjoy life to the full in spite of politicians.

About Greg Lopez

Greg Lopez is a Visiting Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University.