Asia needs its own EU more than ever


Global Europe

Picture of Kevin Rudd
Kevin Rudd

President of the Asian Society Policy Institute (ASPI) and Prime Minister of Australia (2007-2010, 2013)

There are concerning parallels between pre-1914 Europe and today’s security tensions in maritime Asia. The Asia-Pacific region has been witnessing an emerging bifurcation between a 21st century economic order geared towards integration, and a regional security order with an increasingly sharp, 19th century edge.

Leaders in Asia can nevertheless draw policy lessons from Europe’s recent history. It was, in part, this tragic history of competing nationalisms that led me, as Prime Minister of Australia, to propose an Asia-Pacific Community (APC). When I launched this initiative back in 2008, I stressed that although the great powers of the Asia-Pacific region may live in harmony today, history should remind us not to assume that ‘peace in our time’ can ever be guaranteed. That was seven years ago. And as we all know, security tensions in the region have now become much sharper.

An APC would, of course, be significantly different from the original concepts of European co-operation. The Asia-Pacific region itself is vastly different to Europe. The history of 20th century Asia has primarily been a colonial and post-colonial history. By contrast, Europeans over the same period were the colonisers. Europe has evolved the notion of the nation-state steadily since the 15th century, whereas this was less formal across Asia. Further, despite its division into often competing nation-states, and despite the wars of religion, Europe evolved from a common Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman culture, whereas that is not the case with the vastly different civilisational trajectories of Asia.

The challenge for Asia-Pacific leaders is to square the circle by recognising the uniqueness of Asian regionalism, while avoiding Europe’s mistakes by drawing pertinent lessons from its history

We can, however, see the need in both Europe and Asia for the evolution of a common political and security architecture to manage regional tensions. The same idea of a long-term Asia-Pacific Community comes from this premise. An APC would foster deeper inter-dependence over time, together with new habits of transparency, trust and co-operative norms. Such mechanisms could help Asia cope with crises by managing them peacefully and reducing the strategic polarisation we are beginning to see emerge between Washington and Beijing. The concept of an APC could begin with basic confidence and security-building measures between regional states.

I did not think then, nor do I think now, that it would be easy to create an APC overnight. It would take years of consensus building. Back in 2008, I nominated 2020 as a realistic objective for the establishment of an APC with the membership, mandate and institutional muscle to make a difference to regional security.

The long menu of traditional and non-traditional security challenges confronting Asia has not changed fundamentally since I first proposed the Asia-Pacific Community seven years ago. What has changed is the way these challenges have become more salient and more urgent. The great power harmony we seemed to enjoy in 2008 now resembles the halcyon days of a distant past.

The Asia-Pacific security order is under significant strain from rising strategic frictions among great powers and regional states, driven in large part by a series of unresolved territorial disputes. Asia’s economic order, long built on the back of trade liberalisation, also shows signs of bifurcation between trading blocs that seek to exclude one another.

Watching these trends unfold, the intellectual and political leaders of the Asia-Pacific region face a clear-cut choice. The first is to look on aghast as events shape our future. The second is to accept that our future “is not in our stars, but in ourselves”. If we lean towards the second school of thought, as I believe all national leaders in Asia do, then the next question to ask is: What can we do to steer the course of events away from these rocky shoals?

Building an APC by 2020 is one possible objective for Asia. Throughout 2009, I outlined my vision of an APC to senior officials and heads of state at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the East Asia Summit and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. In an effort to open a regional discussion, the Australian government hosted a conference on the APC that year, and appointed a senior official to travel to 21 countries to consult with more than 300 officials, 30 ministers and eight national leaders. Five points of consensus emerged. Back then, there was:


    • A high level of regional interest in the APC proposal;


    • A recognition that existing institutions could not adequately manage the region’s full range of economic, security and political challenges;


    • A limited appetite for the creation of new institutions in addition to existing ones;


    • An agreement that ASEAN must be at the core of any future APC;


    • There was strong interest in giving more substance to the APC proposal.


The Asia Society Policy Institute in New York, which I joined as inaugural President last year, has launched a Policy Commission to consider the future of Asia-Pacific regional architecture, including the possibility of an APC. Our ongoing work aims to advance consensus on the reform of regional architecture, and to elaborate the details of what an Asia-Pacific Community might look like in practice.

An early critique of the APC proposal concerned whether an EU-type institution was an appropriate model for the Asia-Pacific region. The EU is by no means a one-size-fits-all model which Asian leaders should simply impose on the region. As noted above, our history, security challenges and strategic context are starkly different, so any Asia-Pacific Community should be built on a foundation of common regional norms and foreign policy realities. We cannot understand Asia’s history and future needs solely through “Western spectacles… by imitating the tinsel of the West,” as Gandhi said in 1947. It is for good historical reasons that Asian regionalism is and will be different to that of Europe.

When building the EU on the ashes of World War 2, exhausted European empires slowly contracted and withdrew from Asia. Asian states simultaneously rediscovered national sovereignties and political independence that all except Thailand had lost for a century. Whereas Europe sought innovative ways to dilute national sovereignty – which the EU’s founders blamed for the war – Asian states sought to preserve and protect their hard-earned sovereignty. This is the reason that Asian regionalism is based on the principle of non-interference and a stronger state-centric regional order than that which prevails in modern Europe.

The EU is by no means a one-size-fits-all model which Asian leaders should simply impose on the region

At the 1947 Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi, one of the earliest attempts at Asian regionalism, delegates resisted setting up a permanent regional body. The 1955 regional conference at Bandung in Indonesia again decided not to bureaucratise Asian regionalism. It was not until 1967 that we saw the founding of ASEAN, then APEC in 1989, the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1994, and the East Asia Summit in 2005.

The differences between Asian and European regionalism shouldn’t blind us to the fact that even though history doesn’t repeat itself, it often rhymes. I stand by what I said in 2008: what we can learn from Europe is that it is necessary to take the first step. In the 1950s, sceptics saw European integration as unrealistic. But most people would now agree that, despite current difficulties in the European economy and the unfolding refugee crisis, Europe’s visionaries have succeeded in evolving a European Union where the thought of one member state going to war again against another is simply unthinkable. That was simply not the case for the Europe of the previous 500 years. It is this spirit we need to capture in the Asia-Pacific.

European history is also a sobering reminder never to take peace for granted. Had a nascent pan-European security institution existed in July 1914, it might have made a decisive difference in leaders’ assumptions and the fateful choices that they made. Without a robust security institution, or even a mature security dialogue, there was no political “shock-absorber” between contending nationalisms. And we should never forget that Europe’s advanced state of economic inter-dependence at the dawn of the 20th century was not enough to prevent war.

Not only has Europe’s integration reduced historical security tensions in Europe. Other institutions have also played a role. For example, without the military transparency and confidence-building measures of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE/OSCE), the Cold War frictions of those times might well have escalated to war. The CSCE didn’t resolve the Cold War and couldn’t prevent crises, but it was often able to create breathing space for pragmatic leaders on both sides to negotiate the keystones of international security – such as the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.

The challenge for Asia-Pacific leaders is to square the circle by recognising the uniqueness of Asia’s regionalism, without mindlessly repeating centuries of European mistakes. We in Asia need to draw pertinent lessons from Europe’s history.

A possible roadmap towards a future Asia-Pacific Community is as follows:

  • Transforming the East Asia Summit into an APC by 2020 based on the existing Kuala Lumpur declaration of the EAS in 2005;
  • Bringing the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ meeting under the umbrella of the EAS/APC;
  • Establishing a permanent EAS/APC secretariat in an ASEAN capital – Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta being the most likely candidates. In time, the region will need its own equivalent of a Brussels-type institution, although without the European model’s pooling of sovereignty;
  • Annual meetings at Heads of state and government level to ensure high-level political direction and buy-in. This should be held in the first half of the year as a stand-alone summit, not as a “tack on” to other regional summits like APEC;
  • Its first task should be to elaborate a comprehensive set of regional confidence and security-building measures, including military hotlines, transparency measures and pan-regional protocols to handle military incidents at sea and in the air;
  • As a second priority is developing a fully integrated natural disaster response mechanism across the region, under an integrated virtual command, in the event of a major environmental, climatological or other incident of regional scale;

None of the above will happen magically in an Asia that is now the subject of increasing polarisation. Setting the region on autopilot would steer us along a certain path – but not necessarily a path of our long-term choosing. Building an Asia Pacific Community must begin today so that we may one day declare, as Jean Monnet wrote to Robert Schuman in 1948, that “we have moved on from preparing for war, and we are now preparing to prevent war.” The EU’s founding fathers disagreed on the practical limitations, the means and the final goal of the European project, but their achievements are undeniable. Speaking of the EU as a potential example for Asia may appear misplaced at a time when a potential Brexit, eurozone growth difficulties and an unresolved refugee crises continue to dominate international news. Nonetheless, the European community succeeded in its historic mission of eliminating centuries-old security dilemmas between France and Germany, and making a modern war at the heart of Europe unthinkable, if not impossible. Ours should be a similar aspiration for Asia.

Related activities

view all
view all
view all
Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo