(CNSNews.com) - Sixteen Asia-Pacific nations are preparing for a summit next week, which some hope may lay the foundation for a powerful new regional bloc. Deep divisions and competing agendas are threatening the ambitious vision, however.
The United States has been excluded from the inaugural East Asia Summit in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 14, although the State Department has sought to play down the significance and implications of the non-invitation.
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told a press briefing Thursday the U.S. had strong economic, political and security ties with nations and existing regional groupings in Asia, and did not see the formation of a new forum "as coming at the expense of our engagement."
The summit participants are the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping; their long-standing "ASEAN+3" dialogue partners China, South Korea and Japan; and newcomers India, Australia and New Zealand.
Together they represent almost half of the world's population and 21 percent of global trade. They include three of the world's four most populous countries, China, India and Indonesia, as well as the world's second-largest economy, Japan.
The concept of a pan-Asian community originated with former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who called in the mid-1980s for an East Asian Economic Caucus, in a bid to counter U.S. influence in the region.
Because of Mahathir's anti-Western inclinations, the proposal was quickly dubbed a "caucus without Caucasians."
Resisted by Washington, the idea was shelved, but it saw the beginnings of a comeback when ASEAN - Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam - began to hold annual ASEAN+3 meetings in 1997.
For various reasons - including concerns by some Asian countries that the envisaged new East Asian Community (EAC) may be dominated by China - some including Japan and Singapore began pushing for a more inclusive membership.
Despite Chinese opposition, Australia, New Zealand and India were eventually invited, but only after agreeing an entry requirement of signing a regional non-aggression treaty with ASEAN.
Russia is also understood to be keen to join, and the European Union has asked for observer status, although an E.U. envoy said it had yet to receive a response.
Mahathir, who retired in late 2003 after 22 years in power, emerged this week to declare the 16-nation formula a corruption of his vision, intimating that Australia and New Zealand would merely be agents for the U.S.
"Australia is basically European and it has made clear to the rest of the world that it is the deputy sheriff for America," he told reporters at a press conference. "Therefore Australia's views would represent not the East, but ... America."
"I have always opposed the idea of Australia and New Zealand being in the group simply because Australia and New Zealand are not really East nor are they Asian," Mahathir said, also voicing suspicion that Japan's "very strong relations with the United States."
The Malaysian government and summit host quickly distanced itself from Mahathir's comments, with Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar saying ASEAN could not afford to be exclusive in a globalized world.
"It is not wrong for us to look beyond ourselves," he said, adding "it is still up to us to determine our future direction."
'Counterbalance to China'
Diplomats' attempts to draft a declaration to be released at the summit have run into difficulties, prompting predictions that the long-awaited meeting may achieve little.
Splits have developed between participating countries that feel ASEAN+3 should be at the core of the EAC, and those wanting all 16 summit participants - including "outsiders" like Australia - to play an equally important role.
China is pushing for the ASEAN+3 idea, while Japan - a close U.S. ally that is going through a tense period with China - wants the more inclusive approach, a position shared by India.
Beijing has been fending off suggestions that it intends to dominate the summit and EAC. Foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said last week that China had no intention to play a dominant role in East Asia since every country was an equal member of the region.
"Japan is trying to drag countries outside this region such as Australia and India into the community to serve as a counterbalance to China," said an editorial in Beijing's official People's Daily, attributing this view to "ASEAN diplomats."
The paper said Japan would likely try to "grab the upper hand" at the summit and promote a pro-U.S. stand, in an attempt to "weaken Chinese influence in East Asia."
Heritage Foundation scholar Dana Dillon said recently that even without taking part in the summit, U.S. influence would be evident.
Eight of the 16 participants are democracies and five are security treaty allies of the U.S., he noted, whereas "China has no formal allies in the group."
India and others hope the envisaged regional community eventually could develop along the lines of the forerunner to the European Union, with a free-trade area stretching from South Asia to New Zealand.
But it remains unclear how much progress towards forming an EAC will come out of next week's summit.
"I don't think there should be unrealistic expectations about what's going to be achieved at one meeting," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Thursday.
"I think it's only over a period of 10 or 15 years, perhaps 20 years, that the East Asia Summit will really consolidate itself in the architecture of the region one way or another," he said.
"In the end, the test of all of these institutions is going to be what they can deliver for ordinary people," Downer added, citing in particular the need to improve living standards and security.
University of Indonesia international relations lecturer Bantarto Bandoro warned of likely setbacks ahead.
"An East Asia community is one that is supposed to convey the idea of certain economic, social and security bonds stemming from proximity, common interests, neighborhood, friendship and so forth," he wrote in the Jakarta Post.
"But the East Asian community will later find that with its competing state interests ... policy preferences and views, conflicts within the community will remain inevitable and the road to a solid and integrated East Asian regional framework of cooperation will not be smooth."
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