Jack Nitschke on Rudd’s plan for an East-Asian regional political community.
The reasons for Kevin Rudd’s sudden political downfall have been extolled again and again since that fateful June day in 2010 when he was suddenly stripped of power; he was an obsessive, autocratic micromanager who overwore his emergency mandate and alienated his political allies in the process. Rudd rose to power because he managed to forge an alliance of convenience with Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan, using their connections and their vast influence within the Labor Party’s monolithic power structure to his own ends; this plan seemed mutually beneficial at the time, however Rudd failed to consider the plan’s major drawback, that his ascendancy was entirely contingent upon the goodwill of these two Labor Party power brokers. Now Julia Gillard is Prime Minister, Wayne Swan her deputy and Rudd, as a result of feigned humility on his part and the potentially explosive political acumen at his disposal, now fulfils the conciliatory roll of Foreign Minister.
This incident – probably the second most contentious in Australian political history – arose for many reasons, but Rudd’s recklessness as much as his disregard for his cabinet caused his downfall. As Prime Minister, he was known for making snap decisions and announcements without consulting anybody; the most infamous of such being his suggestion of an Asia-Pacific Community in the vein of the European Union by 2020. This suggestion, made in 2008 raised many eyebrows, and so it should have. Unlike Europe, the Asia Pacific region differs greatly from country to country in wealth, military strength and political culture. Barring some unforseen change that politically aligns the nations of the Asia Pacific, this idea was wholly unrealistic, and Rudd’s failure to mention such a plan to either foreign leaders or his own government are both signs of his overconfidence in his own abilities and the merits of his plan; few were impressed. Upon coming to power Julia Gillard made a point of remarking of the concept:
‘I don’t get any indication, from the things that have been said, that there is going to be that degree of movement in the region.’
Yet it would be unfair to dismiss either Kevin Rudd or his planned Asia-Pacific community out of hand; both in their own way hold merit and could potentially amount to something very formidable in years to come. Rudd’s suggestion is indicative of his intention to bring Australia out of the shadow of the United States. This is a very real need if Australia is to become a bigger player in regional affairs. The American Alliance has served Australia well, it saved Australia from what could have been a far more protracted and bloody war with Japan, and it allowed the Australian government to properly assert its independence from the United Kingdom and to define itself as a nation; however since then things have stalled. We are still seen very much as America’s trusted ally throughout the international community and despite effective suzerainty over some of the Pacific Island nations, we have no real sphere of our own. Australia would be foolish to abandon the ANZUS alliance, it is in our short to medium term interest to maintain our association with America as it provides us a valuable military ally and much needed political acumen on the international stage, however it is time that Australian governments started looking towards the future and examining the possibility of realigning Australia’s allegiances. The reasons for such a shift are good:
Generally, military alliances with significantly stronger allies, whilst useful in times of crisis, makes for a very unequal relationship. Australia has been dragged into many wars by the United States, risking lives and spending money on far flung campaigns against enemies who pose no direct threat to Australia. Likewise, future military obligations may one day drag Australians into a war with a somewhat more formidable enemy that does pose a threat to Australia; and history has shown that bigger countries tend to make bigger wars. In the modern international climate of debate and reason, any war on such scale may seem unlikely, but it is important to also consider that the ANZUS treaty was initially created with such a conflict in mind. Being beholden to such a powerful nation tends to involuntarily align Australia to US foreign policy (at least it inhibits Australia’s capacity to contradict such policy should it wish to do so). If Australia is to become a more important regional player, it must be seen as a power unto itself with its own agenda, not a nation that defers decisions.
It would be in Australia’s long term interest to forge an alliance with somebody on an equal footing with itself. The best long term military alliances tend to exist between nations that are comparatively equal (a good example is 1904’s Entente Cordiale between the UK and France). Australia should align itself militarily with nations like Japan or Indonesia which have similar, relatively non-contentious political systems and comparable military strength. Such an alliance would still serve Australia’s defence concerns slight as they are, it would also leave future governments less constrained to pursue a more independent foreign policy.
Being able to present Australia as a leading force in a powerful allied bloc would do much to improve its influence internationally, it would also help focus the attention of the Australian Defence Force upon regional issues rather than distant areas like Afghanistan. It would do much for our standing to be able to be considered something other than America’s junior partner; America could be consoled through a strengthening of trade ties, quite possibly using something like Rudd’s Asia-Pacific Community as a conduit for such.
Rudd’s Asia-Pacific Community idea was not bad per se; however it can only really exist in a theoretical future with a somewhat different balance of power. Were this community formed today and it were to include China and the USA as Rudd suggested, it would be immediately swamped with problems, like China’s unwillingness to allow democracy, and the issue of US-Chinese de facto supremacy. Such a community would therefore only ever be feasible as a trade alliance. In alliance, nations like China and the USA would have no need for smaller powers like Australia, and it would hinder our interest to be junior partners in such an agreement. Any such economic community should have the capacity to shift the regional balance of power, but not maintain it. Said organisation could both improve Australian trade relations with the United States and give Australia greater freedom to forge new military alliances by reducing its reliance on the US.
However, it is crucial that the risks of such a scheme are not downplayed: this organisation, if it came to be dominated by China, India and the United States, could leave Australia with even less freedom. Also, unlike the European Union, this proposed community would include some conspicuously undemocratic governments; this is not just an issue of ideology, having to deal with internal squabbles over human rights and democracy would harm the organisation’s credibility; so unless China adopts democracy and other nations like Thailand significantly improve their human rights record, the Asia-Pacific Community will always inhabit the realms of hopeful fantasy.
It occurs to one that Rudd should’ve perhaps kept this idea to himself, out of prudence or at least honed it a bit before presenting the concept as he did, but that doesn’t make him a fool for thinking of it. This is an idea that could significantly advance Australia’s interests internationally and give future Australian governments greater independence from their American counterparts to improve Australia’s standing internationally, but it won’t be happening by 2020.