Making APEC

Paul Keating

Sitting down to a private dinner one night in Tokyo as a guest of my Treasury counterpart, the Japanese Minister of Finance, Kiichi Miyazawa, in a moment of candour, he asked me whether I thought 'the Chinese would attack us'.

Taken aback by the question, and a question put so seriously, I immediately replied 'no I don't'.

To which Mr Miyazawa then said quizzically, 'but why not?'

Both questions sent a political shiver through me, coming as they did, from such an accomplished and worldly figure as Miyazawa.

What that conversation did for me was to underline something that I well knew but had not concentrated upon: the unresolved issues between Japan and China flowing from their history during the Second World War and the period leading up to it.

Mr Miyazawa in the same conversation then asked me for a pen sketch of the personality of Mr Li Peng, the then Chinese Premier and other senior members of the Chinese politbureau.

Those remarks made it apparent to me that not only had the leadership of Japan's government, the Liberal Democratic Party no understanding of Chinese thinking, but worse than that, they had never met Chinese leaders.

Japan's imperial history and the history of the Cold War which followed it had kept the leadership of these two great nations apart to simmer in ignorance, resentment and mistrust.

It was the antipathies within this relationship that led me to conclude that something radical had to be done about the political architecture of north Asia, and that the architecture had to also include the United States, the strategic guarantor of Japan.

"As a middle power, I saw Australia as having the opportunity of helping to reshape the political architecture of East Asia and the Asia Pacific in general, thereby adjusting power in the world to better suit Australia's interests."

This was the major dynamic which encouraged me, as Prime Minister, to propose a head of government meeting amongst the major powers of the Asia Pacific.

An idea of an Australian Prime Minister, who knew that Australia's security would be put at risk if the countries of North Asia again resorted to military violence. And not just Australia's security, the region's.

This was in 1992, less than three years after the Soviet Union had imploded, the Berlin Wall had come down and the Cold War had ended.

Twelve days after I had become Prime Minister, on 21 December 1991, I had the privilege of meeting and hosting a visit to Australia by the United States President George Herbert Bush - the second only visit by an American president to this country. On New Year's Day 1992 at Kirribilli House, I put to President Bush the idea of developing a heads of government body in the Asia Pacific to take the opportunity of regionalism of a kind which had formerly been put out of bounds by the bi-polarity of the Cold War.

Until that time, United States policy in the Pacific had mostly been conducted by the United States Navy. The great majority of us really only remember one head of government meeting between a Chinese Communist Party leader and a US President and that was the famous one held between Mao Tse Tung and President Richard Nixon.

There existed no political framework within which an American President, a Chinese President and a Japanese Prime Minister could meet one another, save for meetings of the high summitry kind which, however infrequent, could only ever include any two of them.

As a middle power, I saw Australia as having the opportunity of helping to reshape the political architecture of East Asia and the Asia Pacific in general, thereby adjusting power in the world to better suit Australia's interests. But it goes without saying that what suited Australia's interests, conducting our national life in a context of peace and prosperity, would similarly suit the Asia Pacific, a region riven by bad history, massively damaged by conflicts and weighed down by poverty.

At the Kirribilli House meeting, President Bush's national security adviser, General Brent Scowcroft, told me that I had outlined to the President a strategy which the Americans had not themselves conceived and which, he said, the Americans were not in a position to put together. He said the moment that the United States sought to approach China with a head of government apparatus which also included Japan, the Chinese would back off if the Japanese had not themselves done so.

He also agreed with my proposition that such a body should necessarily include the countries of ASEAN, especially Indonesia, but Indonesia until that time had been one of the leaders of the non-aligned movement and there was no guarantee that even if we were able to bring in the Chinese and the Japanese, that we could do the same with the Indonesians.

The meeting finished with me promising the President that I would feel out heads of government around the region and that I would write to him more formally putting an express proposal.

This I did on 3 April 1992, outlining the proposition and the progress in consultation I had made in the interim.

The President wrote back to me on 29 April 1992 saying, 'I believe the most effective means of moving your suggestion forward at the proper time would be for Australia to take the lead. Too prominent a US role could be counterproductive.'

I took the President at his word and wrote to Mr Kiichi Miyazawa in Japan, who had since become Prime Minister and he replied on 8 May 1992 saying that 'the support of other members of our region, above all the ASEAN countries, will be an essential requirement for success.' He then suggested I further discuss with the ASEAN countries the possibility of them joining Australia in taking up the initiative. And by referring to ASEAN, he meant Indonesia. The Japanese viewed ASEAN as Indonesia plus the other South East Asian states, more or less tacked on.

So, there it was.

You can read the full speech on the Evatt website by clicking on this link.

You can listen to Paul Keating's speech by podcast by going to this link.