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Australia's Regional Future

Opening Keynote Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA FAIIA, Chancellor of The Australian National University, to the 6th Annual Crawford PhD Conference, Friends and Partners: The Future of Regional Groupings Among Asia-Pacific Countries,  Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, Canberra, 24 November 2015

The story of Australia’s relationship with Asia for most of our existence has been one of tension between our history and our geography, with history – the perception of ourselves as a transplanted European outpost – very much in the ascendant.  I think it’s fair to say that it was not until the late 1980s and early 1990s, under Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating, that Australian policymakers really started, seriously and systematically, to redefine our identity – and the policy measures that flowed from that – in a way which gives preeminence not to our European and North American focused history but to our Asian geography. 

That was certainly at the heart of the approach I adopted right from the outset as Foreign Minister, saying for example in one of my earliest speeches in that role, in 1989, that in relation to the Asia Pacific (what I would probably now prefer to call the Indo-Pacific), we should not “believe that we are cultural misfits trapped by geography. Australia and Australians should see the region not as something external which needs to be assuaged, but as a common neighborhood of extraordinary diversity and significant economic potential. The region is primary for Australia because it is where we live, and must learn the business of normal neighborhood civility. It is where we must find a place and a role if we are to develop our full potential as a nation.”

There have been some bumps and lurches along the way in the consolidation of this perception. The Howard Government, at least in in its early years, was much more inclined to find comfort in the old European and North American relationships rather than the newer neighboring ones, but did redress the balance somewhat in its last years in office.  The Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments again visibly sharpened the focus on the region – with Rudd’s signature achievement being the creation (not without a few diversions along the way) of an expanded East Asian Summit as the new centerpiece for regional economic and security dialogue, and Gillard’s being the ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ white paper.

But then came Prime Minister Abbott. While saying that his foreign policy orientation would be “more Jakarta and less Geneva”, developing a close relationship with his conservative counterpart Abe in Japan, and launching through Foreign Minister Bishop the useful “New Colombo Plan” designed to help Australians students study in the region, he was overall much more comfortable talking about Australia’s role in the ‘Anglosphere’, and consigned to the archives the Asian Century white paper.

With Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister, we can reasonably hope for much better, and the signs from his summit travelling of the last ten days are encouraging.  But, here as elsewhere, internal Coalition politics may make it hard for him to follow his natural instincts, and the jury will be out for a good while yet

Getting right, and keeping right, our relationships with our neighbors in North East, South East and South Asia involves policy commitment and action at a number of different levels.  I have been asked today to focus on the multilateral dimension – and regional groupings in particular – but bilateral, and indeed certain unilateral, policy settings are equally important components of the total picture.

Bilaterally, for the countries most important to us in economic and security terms, we have to continue to work very hard to build (in the case of India) or consolidate and solidify (in the case of China, Japan, Korea and Indonesia) economic, political, security and general people-to-people relations.  As to economic relations, although multilateral – and ultimately global – trade agreements are infinitely to be preferred to a spaghetti bowl of separately negotiated bilateral FTAs, we have to take the world, and the region, as we find it, and in that context we should applaud the trade agreements recently concluded with Japan, Korea and China.

Building good bilateral relationships does not mean never uttering an unwelcome word or taking an unwelcome action. There are human rights issues on which Australia must always speak out if it is to remain true to itself and the universal values we embrace.  And sometimes we need to push back on hard security issues – for example by not accepting passively China’s egregiously far-reaching territorial claims in the South China Sea.  But it does mean recognizing the cultural milieu in which we are operating – in particular the central importance of face in most of these societies – and not causing gratuitous offence in a way that is likely to be not only unproductive but counterproductive.

The most crucial challenge we face in our bilateral relationships is to avoid a zero-sum game developing in our relations with our major economic partner China and our major security partner the United States.  China is hard-headedly realistic about our alliance relationship with the US – in no doubt at all on which side we would be on if the nightmare scenario of a military confrontation were to arise, and not inclined to let defence issues inhibit the other dimensions of its relationship with us. But it is important to show some reciprocal understanding and restraint of our own and do our best to persuade the US and our other friends in the region likewise.

I don’t agree with the late Malcolm Fraser’s argument that we should walk away from the US alliance. But we would do ourselves a substantial service by being a little cooler about the ‘pivot’, and re-establishing the visible degree of independence from Washington that I think characterized a number of our positions during the Hawke-Keating years.  We should certainly never again offer reflex support for indefensible military adventures of the kind mounted in Iraq in 2003, always making sure that we have good independent grounds for embarking on any such operation (for example, in the case of Iraq and Syria, protection of civilians against mass atrocity crimes).

At the unilateral level, the decisions we make about just how self-reliant a defence policy we want to have, and can afford to have – and how much, by comparison, we are dependent on our great and powerful ally, the United States, to shore up our weaknesses --  will have a profound impact on how we behave, and are perceived, in our own region.  As to our immigration policy, nobody should need reminding how much damage the White Australia policy did us for so long in the region, and it is crucial that our current preoccupation with asylum seekers and border protection not be seen, as it all too easily can be, as having any racial or religious exclusionary dimension.

To focus now on my main  theme, the multilateral dimension of our regional future, there are two compelling general policy imperatives for Australia. One, with which I have been much preoccupied during my own international career, is to win and keep a place at the table at the major regional dialogue policymaking forums. The other is to ensure that we are inside, and not outside, the tent when new regional trade agreements are concluded and economic institutions created.

Taking the latter imperative first, it was absolutely crucial that Australia be a founding shareholder in the AsianInfrastructure Investment Bank, notwithstanding the immense pressure we and other US allies were under not to give credence to this first China-led multilateral institution: it was a close-run thing.  Similarly, I don't think we have had much choice about going along with the US-initiated Trans-Pacific Partnership, even though most analysts assess the net gains for Australia as being relatively slight, and it remains deeply unfortunate that the TPP – while notionally remaining open to be joined by China – was so obviously designed as a regional counterweight to it. While the US Administration seems to have modified its stance on China’s participation, the clear message still coming from the US Congress is that it is and will remain exclusionary.
A potentially more palatable, and productive, regional multilateral trade agreement in which Australia should be and is involved, as a complement to both the TPP and  bilateral agreements, is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Negotiations for this were launched by leaders from ASEAN and ASEAN's FTA partners (Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea and New Zealand) in the margins of the ASEAN Leaders meetings and East Asia Summit in Cambodia in November 2012, and are continuing:  conclusion of this agreement should be a very high priority for us.
The East Asian Summit is the latest, and potentially by far the most important, of the regional dialogue and policymaking forums which Australia has been very actively involved in trying to build since the late 1980s, and it is to that effort that I now turn.

For a long time our primary focus in this respect was the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, initiated in Canberra in 1989, with annual leaders’ meetings institutionalised from 1993. APEC, with its 21 member economies, has become – and remains, with some good work being done quietly behind the scenes –   an important engine for trade facilitation. But it has not lived up to the hopes of its founders (including me) by delivering rapid trade liberalisation, in accordance with the Bogor Declaration of 1994, which envisaged complete trade and investment liberalisation among its developed economies in the group by 2010, and within the whole group by 2020.  Its membership is still not sufficiently inclusive, with India remaining outside it, and its solely economic mandate has set limits on its capacity to debate more broad ranging policy issues. That said, security issues have regularly been discussed informally in the margins of APEC meetings, nowhere more importantly than at the New Zealand meeting in 1999, which mobilised a response to the explosive situation in East Timor.

The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), in whose foundation Australia again played an important role, has met since 1994 at foreign minister level to discuss regional security issues.  Now with 27 member, it was intended to evolve through three phases over time, starting with confidence building measures, moving from there to more explicit conflict prevention roles and ultimately conflict management and resolution. It has done some useful work on initiating discussion on a code of conduct for the South China Sea and developing cooperative disaster relief capability, and there has been some useful regular dialogue on issues like counter-terrorism and transnational crime, maritime security and non-proliferation and disarmament. Nonetheless, it would be fair to say that ARF is still largely stuck in the first groove—dialogue about confidence building—rather than living up to the hopes that by now it would be doing something more substantial.

These two institutions have been supplemented by the more recent development of the East Asia Summit (EAS) process, initiated in 2005, and which initially involved annual meetings being held after the annual ASEAN leaders’ meetings, with those around the table being the ASEAN 10 the North East Asian 3 (China, Japan and ROK) plus India, Australia and New Zealand.   The great utility of this new forum was that it involved a meeting at leaders level (which ARF was not), including India (which APEC did not), able to engage in a broad-ranging dialogue across all major policy issues, security, economic, and broader socio-poliitical  (which neither APEC nor ARF could do).

Its only really obvious weakness was that its membership did not initially include all the relevant major security players – viz. the US and Russia – but this was remedied with their inclusion in 2011, largely as a result of active diplomacy by Australia.  Although there is some residual enthusiasm within Asia for the “Asian only” ASEAN+3 grouping being the premier regional leadership dialogue forum, I sense that is fading, and that the EAS – although not yet without any major achievements to its credit – does seem to be developing sufficient momentum to assume that status.

Last year’s EAS meeting in Myanmar in November 2014 was more notable for developments on the sideline than at the main event, notably Obama’s prodding of the host government and its iconic opponent Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to fulfil Myanmar’s human rights obligations, particularly towards the oppressed Rohingya minority, but the summit itself did feature useful discussions on a wide range of sensitive economic and security issues, including the South China Sea. And the Tenth East Asia Summit just concluded in Kuala Lumpur (21-22 November 2015) seems to have continued that focus, giving the opportunity for substantial concerns to be expressed about China’s actions in the South China Sea, and producing  reasonably substantial agreement on maritime cooperation as well as on counter-terrorism strategies.  It was also agreed to at least begin the process of institutionalising the forum, with an EAS unit to be established within the ASEAN Secretariat and ambassadorial-level preparatory meetings to be held.

Of course it is easy to be sceptical about multilateral summitry, lending itself as it does to familiar gibes about wildly expensive photo opportunities, set-piece speeches endorsing pre-cooked lowest-common-denominator communiqués, and more time devoted to parading around in silly shirts (at least in the case of APEC) than to policy substance. But when well prepared and properly conducted, summits of the EAS and APEC kind can and do add value to regional governance in a number of ways.

They can set the policy agenda on crucial economic and security issues, from which participating leaders will be embarrassed if they backslide – even if, as is often the case, agreement has been wrung out of them by strong peer pressure. They can be an antidote to inertia. The pressure of looming deadlines, with the need to produce “deliverables” both for the formal meeting itself and the usual surrounding buzz of bilateral engagements, often force agreement on important but contentious issues that would otherwise remain indefinitely unresolved. They can achieve things that meetings of lesser political mortals cannot. Leaders bring a broader perspective than any portfolio ministers can, and they usually have much more authority to make decisions and commit resources on the spot.

And they can build mutual trust and confidence among their participants, particularly if they are repeated at regular intervals and include ample time for one-on-one and small-group exchanges. There are pathological exceptions to every rule, and sometimes familiarity does indeed breed contempt. But personal relationships are the lubricant on which both domestic and international policymaking depend, and multilateral summitry of the kind we have just witnessed is the most cost-effective way to develop and sustain them.

I said at the outset that this signature achievement of the Rudd Government was not accomplished without some diversions along the way, and that was indeed what happened with Prime Minister Rudd’s initial promotion of the idea of an “Asia Pacific community”.  Looking back, some of criticisms that were directed at the Rudd proposal – at least in the way it was originally formulated in 2008 – were not entirely unreasonable. Rudd’s use of the ‘community’ word - even with small ‘c’ – and his reference to ‘by 2020’ rather than some earlier date, made the initial proposal sound more grandly ambitious, even EU-like, than it ever actually was. And there could have been more emphasis from the outset, on the achievability of the desired architecture by the evolution of existing institutions rather than the creation of some new one: in the event the expansion of EAS met all of Rudd’s stated objectives, and it would have been helpful if that had remained the focus of the enterprise throughout.

One further point needs to be made about the Rudd initiative: it could and should have been acknowledged more clearly from the outset that the ASEAN countries – all ten of them – had to be recognised as central players in the enterprise. That is not the same as automatically accepting a dominant ‘driving seat’ role for ASEAN: the other major non-ASEAN countries are bound to want their own turns at the wheel. But it is a matter of recognising ASEAN’s geographical status at the hub of the entire region, the stabilizing role it has played in its own traditionally volatile area, the historic role it has played in encouraging wider regional cooperation, and the continuing evolution of its institutional cooperation with the announcement two days ago (ASEAN Summit, 22 November) of the establishment next month of formal economic, political, security and socio-cultural ASEAN Economic Community, aimed primarily at achieving freer movement of skilled workers, trade and capital among its members.

There is some inherent utility in having at least some smaller-country policy voices in the mix. I can understand, up to a point, Kevin Rudd’s ambivalence on this issue. Sometimes having all ten of ASEAN’s members at the table, many of whom are not heavyweights in either economic or security terms, does seem like a little too much of a good thing. The limpness induced by internal divisions and consensual processes mean that ASEAN has been a much weaker collective counterweight to Chinese assertiveness than it could and should have been. And on human rights issues, despite periodic indications that there might be some serious peer group pressure applied to the foot-draggers in the ranks, nothing very much ever happens.

But our two-way trade with the ASEAN bloc, with its 600 million people, is 15 per cent of our total, putting it second only to China, and well ahead of Japan and the US. We’re the major provider of Western education to a number of countries in the region. And beyond economics, we have developed real intimacy in defence and police relations in many parts of the region, and we continue to engage in an intense flurry of diplomatic activity – both officially and in Track 2 forums – with all our ASEAN neighbours. Geography hasn’t changed, ASEAN still straddles us, and is still the region of the world from which any physical security threats to us must come or come through. In the present evolving and uncertain regional geostrategic environment, Australia might well be wise to be a little less overwhelmingly preoccupied with the United States and China, and to become rather more focused on consolidating our position closer to home by developing stronger, closer and more multidimensional relationships with ASEAN and its key member countries.

I don't think any of these considerations would justify the time, effort, frustrations and compromises that would inevitably be involved if we were to seek formal membership of ASEAN, as some have recently been suggesting we should.  But I do think that Australia would be more comfortably placed to navigate a course between our superpower military ally and our emerging-superpower major economic partner if we had a stronger identity as a strategic and economic partner with our South East Asian neighbours, and could shrug off once and for all the lingering perception around Asia that we see one of our central roles in the region as playing ‘deputy sheriff’ to the United States. 

Any significant move to consolidate and strengthen – institutionally and personally – our relationship with South East Asia, and to make this a clearer and stronger element in the overall narrative of our foreign policy, certainly need not and should not come at the expense of our established relationships with the United States and China, and with Japan and South Korea, or of neglecting the need to rapidly further develop our relationship with India.

It is a matter simply of recognizing that in the world as it is, and is becoming, nothing is static; that all of us need as many close friendships as we can; and that for Australia there is much to be gained, and nothing to be lost, by making much more of the friendships we already have, both with our region as a whole, and above all with our immediate northern neighbours.
I have often told the story of the occasion when, during a break in a big Jakarta meeting on the Cambodia  peace  process early in 1990,  while looking for a quiet place in which to make a phone call, I inadvertently stumbled into a room where half a dozen ASEAN ministers were chatting over coffee, where my profuse apologies were overborne by calls to stay and join them, with one colleague saying, ‘Come on in. You’re one of us.’  When the day ever comes when no-one regards that kind of exchange as memorable or exceptional,  that will be the day when Australia’s regional future will really be ensured.