Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was right to focus his speech to the Asia Society in Sydney last night on the need for stronger diplomatic “architecture” in Australia’s Asia-Pacific (or Indo-Pacific) region. But it is hard to work out what he is proposing, or what is new about it.

Unlike Europe, the Asia-Pacific region is notoriously weak in its multilateral institutions. It has plenty of forums, but they are principally about talk rather than the sharing of sovereignty, the active prevention and resolution of conflict or the harmonisation of national policies and actions.

Many features of the region work against such solidarity. It has diverse cultures, political systems and levels of development. It is divided by unresolved historical grievances, territorial disputes, strategic competition and mistrust – not to mention a lack of agreement on where the region begins and ends.

These are all good reasons – along with the basic reality that Asia looks set to possess a massive share of the world’s wealth, power and problems – for serious efforts to build institutions for co-operation. So it is heartening to hear Rudd name regionalism as a priority.

Yet what is the plan, beyond sending the eminent Dick Woolcott around Asia for consultations?

After all, the region already has a bewildering alphabet soup of meetings. Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) is a big show, as Sydney-siders know. Then there is the ten-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and all its expanded variants: ASEAN Plus Three (the three being China, Japan and South Korea); the East Asia Summit (EAS), which adds India, Australia and New Zealand; and the ASEAN Regional Forum (which brings together just about everybody to talk about security except, it seems, for the hard stuff). The longstanding rhetoric behind all these bodies is much the same as Mr Rudd’s.

These are not the early post-Cold War years, when Australia could apply its diplomatic brush to a blank canvas, as it did in helping make APEC and the ARF. Today, most countries have settled on a favourite forum. China loves ASEAN Plus Three, where it is the most powerful player in the room; India and Japan prefer the EAS, where China’s weight is diluted; the United States promotes APEC because it is in it; and the ten ASEAN countries like any meeting where they appear to be in charge.

Any Australian initiative that does not work cleverly, steadily and quietly with or around these powerful and complicated interests will fall flat.

Rory Medcalf, a former diplomat and intelligence analyst, directs the international security program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. Read more of his analysis on this issue at the Lowy Interpreter

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