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US involvement remains central to Asia-Pacific

September 24, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor of the Australian and Visiting Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

KEVIN Rudd was the right choice.

KEVIN Rudd had as much success on his first visit to the US as Foreign Minister as anyone could have hoped for. He saw the President, the Secretary of State, the National Security Adviser and Director of National Intelligence.

He met key regional diplomats, profoundly well-informed interlocutors on American politics and a bevy of senior government officials at an expansive discussion on Asian regional issues.

And that was just in Washington, before he went to New York to take part in a series of UN meetings focusing on aid but also encompassing many other issues.

American sources tell me Rudd was impressive in his meetings, on top of all the detail, with a broad agenda to pursue. The two key messages the Americans took out of the meetings were the reaffirmation of the continuity of Australia’s key strategic settings, that is to say the Australia-US alliance, and Canberra’s desire that the US become more engaged in Asia.

It needs to be recognised now that Rudd as prime minister had two big foreign policy wins: the formation of the G20 summit, and the Asia-Pacific Community idea.

The G20 achievement is well known, the APC story is still shrouded in public confusion, though Hillary Clinton did her best to clear it up in Washington.

The short story of the APC is this. Rudd wanted a body which could deal with political and security issues and which would include East Asia, the US and India. At first, Washington was against Rudd’s idea. Two things moved Washington to reverse this judgment. One was Rudd’s indefatigable advocacy, effective not only because it was cogent and stressed the US’s own interests in greater participation in the region, but also because Rudd was willing to reach down into agencies, such as the State Department, the National Security Council and the Pentagon, where he had independent, personal contacts, and to lobby those contacts.

The second thing that moved the Americans was that then-Japanese prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, proposed an East Asian community which explicitly excluded the US.

At first, ASEAN was also opposed to Rudd’s idea, fearing it would be sidelined, and that only one or two of its members, Indonesia and perhaps Thailand, would be invited to join a new body. But soon enough, ASEAN realised it would have to move forward or other powers would indeed sideline it.

All these dynamics led to the US deciding to join the East Asia Summit, and thus commit, with APEC, to two Asian summits involving the US President per year. This is a great achievement for Australian diplomacy.

But don’t take my word for it. I asked Clinton whether Rudd’s APC idea had influenced US thinking on the EAS. She said: “I was influenced by Kevin Rudd’s very strong argument on behalf of an Asia-Pacific community. I think he was absolutely on point.

“We have a very strong Euro-Atlantic community and it has stood the test of time. Because of the growth in Asia and the many issues that are now having to be confronted by the nations there, we need a different architecture.

“So, in addition to deepening our commitment to ASEAN, we began the process of exploring the opportunity for the US to join the East Asia summit. Australia, when Kevin was prime minister, now as Foreign Minister, was very supportive of that effort.

“So I will be attending the East Asia Summit to be held at the end of October in Hanoi, and then President Obama will attend the next East Asia Summit to be held in Jakarta next year. So we certainly believed it was in America’s interests, but we are encouraged by Australia’s understanding of the dynamics in the region and the encouragement to become more involved in helping to create the architecture of the 21st century.”

Rudd also made an important statement comprehensively rejecting the nonsensical thesis recently put out by professor Hugh White, of the Australian National University, that the key task for Australian diplomacy should be to convince the US to give up its strategic primacy in Asia in order to formalise a power-sharing arrangement with China, and that the greatest danger facing Asian security is that the US may want to maintain its strategic primacy.

White has not really defended this utterly idiotic proposition, and the countless contradictions and non-sequiturs in his thesis, but instead has resorted, when challenged, to almost meaningless platitudes of such banality – the rise of China will affect power relativities in Asia, this will pose choices for Australia, the future may be different from the past – that they are both unobjectionable and also worthless.

But it is important to lay out how far outside mainstream rational Australian thinking White lies. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said in a newspaper interview she had not read White’s thesis but disagreed with its conclusions as reported and her government would not change its approach to the US alliance.

During the week, I spoke by phone to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and put White’s thesis to him. He rejected it utterly and commented: “The US alliance is the cornerstone of Australia’s security and the continued presence of the US is the key to the stability of Asia. A vigorous and confident America is essential to the wellbeing of the world.”

In Washington, I asked Rudd for his response to the White thesis and he made it clear that he rejected the White view root and branch. Rudd said: “In terms of the question you’ve asked me, the position of the Australian government is that the strategic stability of East Asia and the Pacific remains anchored in the strategic presence of the United States of America. And furthermore, that is articulated, in part, through American alliance arrangements with Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia and other security arrangements with other countries in the region.

“I think it’s very important for those who discuss these questions to understand that so much of the economic growth that we have seen in East Asia and the Pacific in the last 30 years has come off the back of the strategic stability afforded to the region by the US’s presence.

“The fact that economic growth can occur, and at such rapid levels and rates that we have seen in these recent decades, is because the problems of peace and security have not had to confront us on a grand scale. And that has been guaranteed so much by the presence of the US. So, the Australian government remains committed to this position. We believe it is in the wider region’s interests that this continue to be the case.

“Of course, bodies such as the East Asia summit, bodies such as APEC and other regional arrangements also play a key role in maintaining peace and stability and development in the region as well. From our point of view, the underpinnings lie still very much with the continued strategic presence of the United States.”

Not in response to me, but in another statement, Rudd said the US alliance “is a core part of the Australian national interest”.

Gillard, Rudd and Abbott were buttressed in their comments by their backbenchers who specialise in foreign affairs, Michael Danby in Labor’s case, Joshua Frydenberg in the Liberals’ case.

However, there is some concern in senior circles in Canberra that White’s glib fluency on TV, and the indefensibly uncritical way he was interviewed about his nutty views, especially on the ABC, and the inability or disinclination of the ABC to scrutinise his views or provide opportunities for them to be debated, means they could gain a fraudulent credibility which their intellectual thinness doesn’t warrant.

White’s Quarterly Essay, where he laid out his thesis, was full of internal contradictions. To take just one among countless examples, White argues that a partnership with China must mean not raising human rights, Tibet, military transparency or a host of other issues Beijing finds it disagreeable to have foreigners talk about. Yet he also argues that Australia’s national identity would not be abridged by such a partnership.

But a concern with universal human rights is a core part of Australia’s political culture. A partnership which meant we couldn’t raise such issues is not partnership with, but servility towards, Beijing – a servility we have never offered to any other nation. Certainly, we are all happy to criticise the US over a host of issues.

White has every right to peddle his facile inanities to anyone who will buy them. But the ABC must now surely abandon the practice of allowing White to be its unchallenged strategic commentator, given that his core views, as demonstrated by the reaction of Gillard, Rudd, Abbott et al, demonstrate how far he is from the mainstream. It is reasonable for White to be part of the ABC’s mix of commentators but not for him to be, as he so often is, the ABC’s unchallenged interpreter of strategic reality, a reality on which he has such a shaky grasp.

As Foreign Minister, Rudd came straight to the plate to answer White’s absurd challenge, as did Gillard and Abbott. It demonstrates the importance of a national leadership which knows something about these issues.

This article was originally published by The Australian and can be found here.

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