Alphabet soups and unwarranted trips down under
Kevin Rudd, Australia’s prime minister, has created a kerfuffle among Asian foreign affairs types this month by calling for something he calls the Asia-Pacific Community. Now that represents ‘inclusive growth’—that is, of the alphabet soup of Asian multilateral organisations—for every country east of India and West of the United States is included (no, not Taiwan, dear, because Mr Rudd would be the last person to argue that it needs a seat of its own). To fly this new kite he got Richard Woolcott, an octogenarian diplomat who worked on creating the Asia-Pacific Economic Community (APEC) when he used to be a sexagenarian diplomat.
It is unfathomable why people should think that just because some European countries got together to form the European Union, it is somehow desirable, possible and important for Asian countries to behave similarly. For all the talk about the EU project, it has yet to pass the Turkey test. Undeterred by the lacklustre performance of most of these Asian outfits—APEC was dead by the time Mr Woolcott became a septuagenarian diplomat—Mr Rudd floated his new idea. As Lowy Institute’s Rory Medcalf argues there is “substantial merit in trying to fix one of the existing regional houses rather than building a new one.”
In this context, the Times of India reports that Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee ‘backed’ Mr Rudd’s idea to save him from embarrassment. Actually, Mr Mukherjee did not so much back the idea as to note that India “would watch with interest” whatever Mr Rudd has set about to do. Translated into plain English, it means “okay, whatever”.
But Mr Mukherjee shouldn’t have been visiting Australia in the first place. Mr Rudd’s actions suggest that he favours a ’tilt’ towards China. His party’s position is clear about the important question of the sale of uranium to India—it won’t sell unless India signs the NPT. Mr Mukherjee should have waited until Mr Rudd’s government was ready to engage India seriously.
Update: In an op-ed in The Asian Age (via email from Adityanjee) Professor Purnendu Jain writes that the ‘onus of engagement should not be left to Australia’. That even if Mr Rudd has shown little interest in engaging India, New Delhi should take the initiative. Mr Mukherjee’s visit, he argues, is a step in the right direction.
That’s questionable. It is for Australia to assess whether or not it would like to benefit from India’s economic growth. It is for Australia to assess whether or not it can leverage India’s geopolitical power to further its own interests. India can envision a future where Australia is a marginal economic and strategic partner. What about Australia?