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?

9 thoughts on “Rudd-erless”

  1. This is not a China tilt as much as strong belief in non-proliferation. So much so that any other logic based on India’s security concerns is secondary. We should brace for similar thinking in Washington starting 2009. There will not be a China tilt but there likely to be an anti-nuclear India tilt.

    All the same, this is the cost of having the bomb and none of us should be surprised by it. Also, this is why the nuclear treaty is important.

  2. I dont see a good reason why Australia could be seen as a marginal strategic/economic partner – in fact we should have better relations with them.

    As far as the nuclear deal goes, it is dead in the water. No matter what the Government does, there is no way that it is going to be cleared in the Senate – Obama will add his poison pill amendment again – most of the bigwigs in the Democratic party are dead det against this deal – given Bush’s low ratings and that fact that NSG would take a couple of months to give its approval – this bill would end up just in Congress just before the elections – and since the Democrats have a chance of sweeping the elections at all levels, i think it is not going to go thru – Obama is absolutely against the deal.

  3. @NS,

    We should have better relations with Australia, no doubt. I think we should wait until the Australian government feels the same. It won’t take too long, actually, and Rudd will soon understand the price of over-reliance on China.

    As for Obama, let’s wait until the elections are over.

  4. Amole,
    On second thoughts i have to say that you are right about Australia. I almost forgot that there is a new liberal Govt and it is even more unlikely than its conservative predecessor to sell Uranium to India (without being an NPT member)

    As far as Obama goes, it is quite clear that he is opposed to the deal. The prospect of McCain winning is really slim and in all probability we are going to have to deal with some one who is far more willing to deal with Iran than see the benefits of a strategic relationship with India. As far as he is concerned, India is viewed out side the nuclear non-proliferation mainstream. Hence he added poison pill amendments when the bill came to the floor of the senate.

    McCain on the other hand has absolutely zero reservations about having strategic relationship with India and has gone so far as to suggest that we should be a part of the G-8 and a league of democracies. Obama has no such proposals.

  5. The China tilt is not a new trend in Oceania. You’re probably aware of the
    NZ-China FTA signed earlier this year. Even then, it was said here in NZ that Australia was not far behind in bringing their ongoing trade talks with China to full fruition.

    Considering the huge economic benefits these agro-based economies have in trading with China, they seem happy to brush aside any human rights issues. India, on the other hand, is quickly failing the ecomonics and geography classes. India can probably envision a future without Australia or NZ as major economic and strategic partners. But that’s completely missing the point. With strategic trade alliances in the Australasia, China has effectively got it’s foot through the door. It now only needs to work on it’s reputation to secure similar deals with other first world countries in Europe or the US. Unfortunately, for India our decision makers are neither strategists nor good marketeers.

    I also think the Chinese people probably don’t even look at India as global competition any more. Thanks to their easier adaptability to Western food and way of life, at least in the short-medium term, the Chinese people have a much better chance of becoming first world citizens (as compared to Indians). And these are points countries like NZ and Aus take into consideration while offering entry rights and working holiday schemes. India has miserably failed to leverage any advantages from its existing position as one of the biggest trade/skilled labour source, or even the inflowing remittances. But that’s a completely different story. Sorry, I got carried away in this comment.

  6. Seems to me that keeping up the diplomatic engagement while treating it as a second tier economic partner is the right approach to Australia

    We engage with nations as well as with Governments — our disagreements with the latter should not diminish our friendship for the former

    Governments come and go and policies change all the time — surely our diplomatic engagement should not be equally volatile

    Finally, if we can engage Islamabad and Riyadh, engaging Canberra is alright — no?

  7. Nice commentary, ms garu.

    I agree that the India-China race was never a race at all at least since the mid 90s.

    The gap continues to widen. Time we found ourselves rivals more in our stage of development – am thinking Vietnam, perhaps – and start a race with those countries.

    Like some wise economist once said (Mahalonobis?) that ‘Plans are useless. planning is everything’. Similarly, these inter-country pony races by themselves are useless. Racing is everything.

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