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Asean must remain the heart of Pacific
Publication Date : 05-10-2012
Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd raised interesting possibilities at a recent gathering in Singapore when he reiterated his call for a Pax Pacifica. Distinct from both a Pax Americana and a Pax Sinica, the Pacific peace would lie in building "the habits, customs and norms of security and strategic cooperation from the ground up" in the region. In outline, at least, this is an inviting idea because no Asian country wants to be forced to choose sides between China and America at a time when China's strength and influence are growing and while America remains an indispensable power. Indeed, it is precisely because of the power transition under way that Pacific Asia needs strong yet adaptable institutions to preserve the space for strategic manoeuvre that is so important to its smaller nations, such as those of Asean.
In order to take off, Pax Pacifica must have a meaningful role for Asean. It is important to not forget that when Australia launched the idea of an Asia-Pacific Community in 2008, there was general understanding of the need for new security architecture to recognise the rise of China, the continuing importance of the United States, and the need for other countries to have a voice in the management of regional affairs. However, to transform that recognition into a viable institution was another matter. The Australian proposal failed to offer Asean a place in the proposed architecture commensurate with its contribution to security, which is that of being a credible interlocutor among the major powers.
Asean's credibility is based on at least three realities. First, it is a successful organisation that possesses the experience to contribute to the building of institutions in the wider region. Secondly, its economic and political links with the major powers are strong and diversified enough to give them a stake in its well-being without Asean being held hostage by the demands of any one power. Thirdly, Asean is not powerful enough to confront any of the major powers militarily.
It is this combination that gives Asean the special role of an honest broker. Its instrumentality was proved when the Asean Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit (EAS) - two institutions that are crucial to regional security - got off the ground. The inclusion of the US and Russia in the EAS strengthened the process and bore testimony to Asean's ability to keep pace with the evolving times.
In noting that Asean must remain "at the absolute core" of the EAS, which in turn will serve as a platform for Pax Pacifica, Rudd himself has recognised its enduring relevance to the emergence of a new strategic architecture. Pax Aseana can show the way forward to Pax Pacifica.