February 24, 2009: Ambassador Richard Woolcott

(Click to Enlarge) Ambassador Richard Woolcott discusses the Asia Pacific community concept.

Towards an Asia Pacific Community: Shaping the Strategic Environment in the Asia Pacific

(Washington D.C.) February 24– In a speech delivered on June 4, 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd laid out his vision for the creation of an Asia Pacific community by 2020. He argued that if the region was to shape strategic developments rather than merely react to them, dialogue and cooperation were needed in order to build a genuine and comprehensive sense of community. In an East-West Center in Washington Asia Pacific Security Seminar, Ambassador Richard Woolcott, Prime Minister Rudd’s special envoy to develop the Asia Pacific community proposal, discussed the concept of the Asia Pacific community, the reactions of regional leaders to this proposal, and the challenges to come.


Ambassador Woolcott detailed the myriad changes that will affect the Asia Pacific region by 2020. He explained that the economies of countries such as China and India are expected to expand tremendously, and that increased economic influence will likely be followed by growing political influence. Further, in the near future the region can expect to be challenged by transnational issues such as competition for natural resources, transnational terrorism and proliferation, illegal migration, climate change, and crime. Prime Minister Rudd argues that existing Asia Pacific institutions are inadequate to tackle these projected challenges, and that head-of-government consultations will be key to finding peaceful solutions for these regional problems. Ambassador Woolcott added that the time to consider how to deal with future problems is not after they occur but in anticipation of them so that the negative impacts can be minimized.


Prime Minister Rudd’s Asia Pacific community concept does not call for the creation of a new regional institution, but rather is a proposal to rethink current institutions and evaluate the needs of the region so that preparations can be made for the changes that are to come. Ambassador Woolcott pointed out that the regional governments are not interested in creating a new regional institution, as the burden of attending existing regional meetings is already difficult for smaller nations with limited resources. Therefore, the Rudd proposal is interested in expanding and enhancing existing organizations, or creating side meetings associated with current organizations, to deal with important economic, political, and security issues at a head-of-state level. Towards this end, Australia has been evaluating the possibilities and challenges inherent in the expansion of institutions such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation organization (APEC), the Asian Regional Forum (ARF), and the East Asian Summit (EAS). Whatever the proposed mechanism, Ambassador Woolcott commented that the final product will take some time to develop.


Ambassador Woolcott, having recently consulted with 21 regional nations, explained that all of the consulted nations seem very interested in the proposal. First, all of these nations agree that there are great changes in store for the Asia Pacific, and that preparations must begin now so that the region can weather these changes peacefully. Ambassador Woolcott explained that the regional nations seem very positive about Australia taking the lead on this proposal, as Australia, a middle power in the Asia Pacific, is viewed with less suspicion than the large powers in the region. Both Japan and the United States, for example, have proposed regional institutions in the past that were not embraced by the smaller nations in the region. He also noted that most nations are interested in the United States playing an active, engaged role in the region through institutions.


Many challenges lay ahead for the implementation of Prime Minister Rudd’s proposal, which Ambassador Woolcott explained is at an exploratory stage. Once the Ambassador returns to Australia with a report on his consultations with the regional leaders, a more definitive shape for the Asia Pacific community will be developed. He mentioned a few specific items that will be discussed in the months and years to come. For example, which nations would be included in meetings of an Asia Pacific community? If too many nations are included, consultations become unwieldy, but if too few are included, the community becomes ineffective at addressing the needs of the entire region. Another question involves the role of non-sovereign entities like Taiwan, and openly hostile states like North Korea. Further, the ways in which the Asia Pacific community can enhance, but not replace, existing institutions such as ASEAN must be considered. Ambassador Woolcott explained that the final shape of the Asia Pacific community can not yet be predicted, but that Australia will continue working in consultation with regional leaders to create a cooperative Asia Pacific.


Richard Woolcott was appointed by Prime Minister Rudd as special envoy to develop an Asia Pacific Community concept in June 2008. He is the founding director of the Asia Society AustralAsia Centre and of the Australian America Leadership Foundation. Ambassador Woolcott was secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 1988 to 1992 and has served as deputy to the high commissioner in Malaysia, commissioner in Singapore, high commissioner to Ghana, ambassador to the Philippines, ambassador to Indonesia, and ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations (1982-1988). Ambassador Woolcott was closely involved with the establishment of the Asia Pacific Regional Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) and, in 1989, was appointed as former Prime Minister Hawke’s special envoy charged with developing the APEC concept. In April 2008, he was appointed by the Rudd Government as chairman of a committee to review the Australian citizenship test. Ambassador Woolcott has contributed articles to leading Australian and overseas newspapers and journals. He is author of T he Hot Seat: Reflections on Diplomacy from Stalin’s Death to the Bali Bombing (Harper Collins, 2003) and Undiplomatic Activities (Scribe, 2007).