More than a decade after former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating’s attempts to bring Australia “closer” to Asia, this country and New Zealand may soon confront a far more fundamental decision in the relationship - whether to join a European Union-style East Asian community.
The concept is still in its fledgling stage, but that is a significant step forward from the situation of just a few years before when, as Brian Lynch, of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, puts it: “Anyone who had taken that concept seriously would have been moved on to a different medication.”
And in an address to the Canberra branch of the Australian Institute, Mr Lynch made it quite clear where he believed New Zealand’s interests lay. “If a coherent, collaborative community is going to emerge, it is a bus on which we have to board,” he said.
The movement received critical impetus from the East Asian Summit meeting last December, a gathering of the leaders of 16 countries, including Australia and New Zealand, representing half the world’s population and 20 per cent of global trade. It was a bold undertaking as many of the nations involved have been rivals, sometimes bitter rivals, throughout most of the 20th century and even in recent times have established no great tradition of working together.
It could easily have been a fiasco; instead it managed to make progress on issues of mutual concern, such as disaster relief and the alleviation of poverty - enough to suggest that given a continuing commitment, a workable East Asian community could emerge in the medium term. For Lynch, “the tectonic plates of regional politics are on the move again in Asia and the question for us is how far will this process go, where is it headed and what are the eventual consequences?”
Can any parallels be drawn from the origins of the European and African unions? Those of a negative bent will argue that East Asia today cannot be compared with Europe in the 1950s and Africa in the 1990s.
The European Coal and Steel Community, the ancestor of the EU, was born out of a determination that Europe would never again create the conditions under which its members would go to war with each other.
The AU, descended from the Organisation of African Unity, an anti-colonialism movement, is charged with bringing some stability and unity of purpose to a poverty-stricken, war and disease-ridden continent. None of these conditions apply in any compelling way to the countries of East Asia.
However, the move towards a globalised economy does present a new set of challenges. From multinational companies to groups concerned for the environment, alliances are being formed that transcend and ignore national frontiers. Even the anti-globalisation movement uses globalised tactics to make its protests heard.
The choice for Australia and New Zealand is to stay outside East Asian unity movements and try to profit through a series of looser arrangements, or to join with the countries in our neighbourhood in a wholehearted membership in which we would have some hope of playing an influential role.
The issues are significant, but it could be agued no more so than those faced by the countries several times since they ceased to be colonies of the British Empire. The years immediately after World War II constituted a period of reassessment as ties with the mother country loosened and waves of immigrants from war-ravaged Europe were accepted. In the 1970s Britain’s entry into the Common Market, the Vietnam experience and the recognition of the People’s Republic of China seemed just as traumatic in their day.
While it is easy to suggest the problems and choices of the moment are more daunting simply because they loom before us, today’s mix of global politics does set it aside from anything experienced in the past century.
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