In June, Canada was formally invited to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a budding trade arrangement that includes original signatories Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore, as well as subsequent members Australia, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru and Vietnam. Canada’ s entry into the TPP was regarded by some as a “coup” for Ottawa’s policy of engagement with Asia, while others expressed the concerns that one might expect with free trade negotiations.
Now comes news that Canada’s request to join the East Asia Summit (EAS), the annual forum of regional leaders that includes the ten ASEAN members (the core of the EAS) and Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the US, has hit a snag. Reports say that Canada may not be let in to the group for some years. The EAS gained particular prominence last year when both the leaders of the US and Russia participated in the sixth summit in Bali, Indonesia. US President Barack Obama used the occasion in part to underscore his administrations new “pivot” to Asia. Besides Canada, other possible future EAS members or observers include East Timor, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Mongolia, Bangladesh, the European Union and the Arab League.
The evolving economic and strategic architectures in the Asia-Pacific are a mix of acronyms of differing membership and geographic configurations. A country such as Canada may be in at times and out at others. But are there too many such economic and trade groupings in the region – too many concentric and non-concentric circles of economies with overlapping aims and roles? Not to mention all the many bilateral free-trade agreements across the region, which multilateralists refer to as a confusing “spaghetti bowl”. All this underscores the question of how to define the Asia-Pacific and how the mix of powers and interests in the region can make it difficult to apply coherence to even economic and trade arrangements.
Consider this 2009 speech by then Australian minister for foreign affairs and trade Stephen Smith. He calls for the launching of a comprehensive “Asia-Pacific Community” (APC):
As valuable as all of the existing organizations and regional groupings continue to be, we need to closely examine the regional architecture and consider how it might best be developed to serve the region’s interests into the first quarter of this century and beyond. None of the groupings in the current architecture is comprehensive in membership, scope or purpose. India is not a part of APEC. More importantly, there is as yet no leaders-level meeting where all of the key regional leaders can gather to discuss the full array of both trade and investment issues as well as political, security and strategic issues confronting the region. An Asia-Pacific community would bring together all major regional countries in a single forum at Leaders’ level with a view to enhancing cooperation on economic, political, security and strategic issues. Such a community could encourage further economic and financial integration. It could foster a culture of deeper collaboration and transparency in security matters. It could drive cooperation on the range of transnational challenges.
Australia’s (not so new) proposal of an Asia-Pacific Community has stimulated debate on the direction of the regionalization of Asia, as reviewed by Deepak Nair of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore in this essay. Nair highlights the limits of the APC concept in the context of the realpolitik of the region.