An Asian Union?

Readers may be aware of Prime Minister Rudd’s views that the creation of an Asian Union along the lines of the European Union would be a Good Thing. As a general principle, I agree. I like these kinds of supranational unions for many reasons, including that the harmonization of policies and laws has the capacity to reduce conflict, to maximise efficient investment and to improve standards of living. Monetary unions such as the creation of the euro reduces the risks for member states involved in currency speculation. 

However, for a number of reasons the proposed Asian Union is problematic, to say the least.

Indeed, the Prime Minister should probably look to the history of the EU if he wants to see a path forward for the proposal. Rather than starting with the grand vision that the EU has become over a period of 50 years, he should contemplate the baby steps that got them to this point. Starting with six countries, dealing with one industry, the EU of the 1950s was a vastly less ambitious project than it has since become.

Perhaps the comparable starting point in our region has been ASEAN, and therein lies the first of the snags that Mr Rudd’s proposal hits. The antipathy held towards Australia’s attempts to join ASEAN in the past by existing members serves as a constant reminder that we are still considered outsiders, a natural enough response to the twin currents of not-quite-postcolonial superiority and xenophobia that have characterised much of the normal state of Australian-Asian relations. This is not to deny the strong current of genuine engagement that has sometimes shone through. Even that engagement, though, has sometimes appeared to compromise some of the political principles that Australia has traditionally advocated, and such compromises can so easily be read as weakness.

One of these issues regards democratic freedoms and individual liberties, an issue that I feel must distinguish any Rudd-style EU for Asia from the actual EU. In the latter customs union, entry is predicated on a liberal democratic system of government. Only once the dictatorships in Portugal and Spain, and the military government of Greece, had been replaced were they admitted, and the same holds true for the Eastern European states now clamouring for entry. I get the sense, though, that such a precondition would not be in the minds of either Mr Rudd or Australia’s diplomatic corps as they push for some form of customs union in our region. While Australia has a consistent principled position regarding democracy, this principle has not, in recent history, got in the way of business except in the most extreme of circumstances.

Any proposed customs union in our region will also no doubt be distinguished in a number of other respects. The EU, then the EEC, was founded on the basis of four essential freedoms: the free movement of capital, goods, persons and workers.

The problem here is obvious to any student of Australian politics.

In what reality does it seem likely that Australia would enter into a customs union in which South East Asian people and workers were allowed free access to Australia? I make no personal judgment here on whether such freedoms should be allowed, merely on the likelihood that Mr Rudd would be able to gain acquiescence from the electorate for such a model. In fact, current members states of ASEAN would themselves be unlikely to agree to such freedoms within the current membership, even without Australia.

In truth, though, I suspect that no such proposition is even being entertained by the Labor government.

This leaves the free movement of goods and capital as the two remaining freedoms left to be contemplated by some form of union. Here it is unclear as to how such an arrangement is contemplated to work. If the situation is as simple as a free trade zone, then why the language of ‘an EU style arrangement’? Clearly, the EU has come to mean much more than just free trade, incorporating limited political and social policy union and more comprehensive economic, fiscal and monetary policy union.

Of the former, something has been already said. Of the latter, it is perhaps worth highlighting that in the lead up to the unification of monetary policy in some of the countries of the EU a great deal of effort went into harmonizing the economies of those countries so that, as much as possible, they had the same economic policies. Part of the ‘levelling’ of the economies of the region entailed funnelling huge amounts of capital from the richer members to the poorer. This is what funded the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy of Ireland, and somewhat less dramatic improvements in the economies of Greece, Spain and Portugal. Is Australia ready to make such a significant investment in our neighbouring economies that would facilitate economic harmonization between those states? Is New Zealand?

I am a strong supporter of improved relationships between Australia and our neighbours, and I believe that, to use the language of the EU, harmonization and integration towards ever closer union is a vital path for our region. But starting with a proposal for a model that has taken 50 years to develop is premature.

Perhaps, as well as expending a great deal of international political energy on attaining a non-permanent seat at the Security Council, Australia should be redoubling its efforts to gain entry to ASEAN. That seems, to me, to be the logical first step to achieving the kind of relationship with our neighbours that Mr Rudd wishes to pursue. Of course, that means actual membership of an organization that accepts non-democratic states, a position which must concern us. Yet, so long as ASEAN exists there is no need for those member states to contemplate an alternative model. There is no suggestion that ASEAN is going away. Australian membership might assist to develop the potential of the organization, with potential benefits for democratization and individual liberties.

Two further elements of European integration are worth noting in this context. Perhaps greater union in the region is to be directed at defence. If so, it is worth noting that the suggested creation of a Western European Army comes against the 50 year history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity may form the foundation of future moves in this direction, but is only a very small first step.

Finally, one of the greatest mechanisms of European integration has been the creation of the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. The creation of similar institutions in the South East Asian region may be the most concrete steps that could be taken towards further integration there.

5 Responses to An Asian Union?

  1. Tim says:

    Good post. If Australia can’t get into ASEAN then anything else is a grand pipe dream. Perhaps our baby steps should be even smaller than that, though.

    For starters, Mr Rudd could lean on the NSW government to grant all international students the same discount on public transport as Australian students get.

    Improving the experience of international students so they return to their own countries with more positive perceptions of Australia would be cheap long-term diplomacy.

  2. Pingback: Oqurum » Tentative first steps or delaying tactic?

  3. David says:

    What would China and America think of Australian membership in ASEAN?
    Australian governments always seem particularly concerned about these superpowers and their opinions so approval on these fronts would be a catalyst yes?

    And a very real thank you from an 18 year old searching for a political blog that is readable, comprehensive and relevant. It took a while dammit

  4. Rewi says:

    David,

    I can’t purport to give you an authoritative opinion on this, but can make some general observations.

    I think it is reasonable to suggest that China would be concerned about the strategic implications of Australian membership of ASEAN, given Australia’s strategic alliance with the United States. I haven’t seen any evidence that China has directly or indirectly lobbied ASEAN Member States to refuse Australian membership, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t, or that the evidence isn’t around somewhere.

    As far as the US is concerned, I would imagine that they would have no particular problem with Australian membership, and, for pretty much the same reasons as China would be concerned about it, might actually welcome such a move. Australia has sought membership in the past, and as far as I know the US has not sought to use its influence with Australia to prevent the latter from seeking admission.

  5. David says:

    An extension of American interests in an Asian forum. Australia is at an interesting political crossroads. I wonder if we can find a comfortable middle ground between the interests of both superpowers. Chinese economic growth and Western values on individual rights. Time will tell.

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