Barack Obama's man Kurt Campbell junks Kevin Rudd's Asia-Pacific plan
June 12, 2009
KEVIN Rudd's proposal for an Australian-led Asia-Pacific community similar to the European Union has been slapped down by the top envoy chosen by Barack Obama to represent US interests in the region.
Kurt Campbell yesterday raised serious difficulties with the Prime Minister's plan, declaring that Asians hated to be compared with Europe.
Speaking at US Senate confirmation hearing before his expected swearing-in as assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, Dr Campbell said multilateral diplomacy in Asia was still "very shallow", and the success of any Asia-Pacific union would require deeper roots.
He made it clear that the US, rather than Australia, would see its role as harnessing and directing any large new institution that involved China and Japan.
In a surprise move, Mr Rudd announced 12 months ago that he wanted Australia to spearhead the creation of a regional institution spanning the Asia-Pacific region. Appointing veteran Australian diplomat Richard Woolcott to lobby regional leaders, Mr Rudd said his proposed union would include the US, China, Japan, India, Indonesia and other countries in the region. While the EU should not provide "an identikit model", the Prime Minister said he believed the Asia-Pacific region could learn much from the European grouping.
Only a fortnight ago, Mr Rudd demonstrated that his enthusiasm for setting up an Asia-Pacific union by 2020 remained undiminished, telling the annual Shangri La conference in Singapore that without a go-ahead for his proposal, he was concerned about "the possibility of strategic drift within our region".
Dr Campbell, a highly regarded policy expert who knows Australia well and is close to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told the US Senate committee on foreign relations yesterday that Asia was "full of these meetings, both multilateral and mini-lateral", saying: "Everyone's got these."
He said he had met representatives of the Prime Minister when they were in Washington, and he was concerned about what growing numbers of such groups were asked to do.
"I know Asians hate to be compared with Europe, and it's a very different set of circumstances, and I appreciate that, but the diplomacy in Asia of a multilateral sort is still very shallow - and if it's to be successful it has to have deeper roots," Dr Campbell said.
Reported by The Australian in January as the US President's choice to fill his key Asia policy post, before the formal nomination was announced in April, Dr Campbell said greater interest in finding appropriate forums from China, Japan and the US, as well as Australia, was a healthy thing.
But he poured cold water on Mr Rudd's proposal that Australia should be at the "forefront", providing the ideas and drive to build a new regional architecture. "The key role of the US is to harness that energy and direct it in appropriate ways," Dr Campbell said.
A senior source close to the State Department said the remarks were a "put-down" of Mr Rudd's plan.
A spokesman for Mr Rudd told The Australian the Prime Minister had always said his "goal for an APC was long-term", and that he looked forward to working with the new Assistant Secretary of State.
He said Mr Rudd's proposal had prompted a range of comments from US officials. "I would ask not to reflect on just one official," he said.
Despite the Prime Minister's comments two weeks ago about the risk of strategic drift, the spokesman said yesterday Mr Rudd was an "unapologetic optimist" about the region's future and the role an Asia-Pacific community could play.
Dr Campbell, who is chief executive of the Centre for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, served as deputy assistant secretary of defence for Asia and Pacific affairs in the Clinton administration.
His blunt views on Mr Rudd's hope of leading a new regional organisation were expressed in response to a question from the Senate sub-committee's presiding chairman, Jim Webb, about Dr Campbell's familiarity with the Australian strategic initiative.
"Yeah, I had a chance to meet with the Prime Minister's representatives when they were through town, I had a chance to talk to them about it," Dr Campbell said.
"You know, everyone's got these - ASEAN plus three, we've got APEC, we've got the ASEAN regional forum. My concern is not in the multiplicity, almost exponential rise in these venues, but more in what these organisations are asked to do."
Mr Rudd's push for a new regional body has been described as his attempt to fashion a big organisation like the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group, established two decades ago after lobbying by Labor prime minister Bob Hawke.
The Rudd proposal, which amounts to adding India to the 21-nation APEC, would seek a regional free-trade agreement and co-operation on issues including terrorism and long-term energy and resource security.
Dr Campbell, who received a congratulatory note from Mr Rudd after his appointment was leaked, has had a lengthy association with Australia through the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, founded by former businessman Phil Scanlan, now Australia's consul-general in New York.