The Asia-Pacific security order is under significant strain from rising strategic frictions among great powers and regional states, driven largely by unresolved territorial disputes. The region is witnessing an emerging bifurcation between a 21st century economic order, and a regional security order with an increasingly sharp 19th century edge.
Watching these trends unfold, the intellectual and political leaders of the Asia-Pacific region face a clear-cut choice. The first is to look on aghast as the simple drift of events shape our future. The alternative is to accept that our future “is not in our stars, but in ourselves”. If we lean towards the second argument, as I believe all national leaders in Asia do, the next question is: What can we do to steer the course of events away from dangerous shoals?
This is the concern which led me, as Prime Minister of Australia, to propose the development over time of an Asia-Pacific Community (APC). An APC would foster deeper interdependence, together with new habits of transparency, trust and cooperative norms. Such mechanisms could help Asia cope with crises by managing them peacefully and reducing the strategic polarization we are seeing emerge between Washington and Beijing.
I did not think then, nor do I think now, that it would be easy to create an APC. It would take years of consensus building. Back in 2008, I nominated 2020 as a realistic objective for the establishment of an APC with the membership, mandate and institutional muscle to make a difference to regional security. Throughout 2009, I outlined my vision of an APC to senior officials and heads of state at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the East Asia Summit and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
The Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, which I joined as inaugural President in 2015, launched a Policy Commission in June 2015 to consider the future of Asia-Pacific regional architecture, including the possibility of an APC. Our ongoing work aims to advance consensus on the reform of regional architecture, and to elaborate the details of what an Asia-Pacific Community might look like in practice.
An early critique of the APC proposal concerned whether an EU-type institution was an appropriate model for the Asia-Pacific region. The EU is by no means a one-size-fits-all model which Asian leaders should simply impose on the region. Our history, security challenges and strategic context are starkly different, so any Asia-Pacific Community should be built on a foundation of common regional norms and foreign policy realities.
The challenge for Asia-Pacific leaders is to square the circle by recognizing the uniqueness of Asia’s regionalism, without mindlessly repeating centuries of European mistakes. We in Asia need to draw pertinent lessons from Europe’s history. Towards this end, a possible roadmap towards a future Asia-Pacific Community is as follows:
- Transforming the East Asia Summit into an APC by 2020, based on the existing Kuala Lumpur declaration of the EAS in 2005;
- Bringing the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ meeting under the umbrella of the EAS/APC;
- Establishing a permanent EAS/APC secretariat in an ASEAN capital – Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta being the most likely candidates. In time, the region will need its own equivalent of a Brussels-type institution, although without the European model’s pooling of sovereignty;
- Annual meetings at heads of state and government level to ensure high-level political direction and buy-in. This should be held in the first half of the year as a stand-alone summit, not as a “tack on” to other regional summits like APEC;
- Its first task should be to elaborate a comprehensive set of regional confidence- and security-building measures, including military hotlines, transparency measures and pan-regional protocols to handle military incidents at sea and in the air;
- As a second priority, to develop a fully integrated natural disaster response mechanism across the region, under an integrated virtual command, in the event of a major environmental, climatological or other incident of regional scale.
None of the above will happen magically in an Asia that is now the subject of increasing polarization. Setting the region on autopilot would steer us along a certain path – but not necessarily a path of our long-term choosing.
The Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) convenes senior and recently retired policy-makers, as well as policy influencers, who can move the dial on international cooperation across trade, security and environmental issues confronting the Asia-Pacific region. ASPI also takes up the mantle of track II diplomacy, which has been at the heart of this institution’s mission for 60 years.
I am proud that ASPI, after less than two years of operation, was included in the world’s top 100 most influential think tanks, according to the 2015 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report1. Our impact is already beginning to be felt in policy issues ranging from Asia’s security architecture, the future of the global order, India’s possible membership in APEC, and environmental sustainability. All of this work aims to capture the spirit and letter of the Asia Society mission, as articulated six decades ago by our founder, John D. Rockefeller 3rd – namely, building bridges of understanding between the peoples of Asia and the rest of the world. Sixty years later, too many people on our planet are busy blowing up bridges, if you will, provoking misunderstanding on many fronts. We’re in the business of bridge-building.