(CNSNews.com) - Sixteen nations have taken part in an inaugural "East Asia Summit" which some hope may pave the way for a new community, even as Australia reiterated its view that an existing regional grouping -- one that includes America -- would remain the "premier body."
The U.S. was not among the countries invited to the meeting in Malaysia, which brought together 10 Southeast Asian (ASEAN) countries, their Northeast Asian neighbors China, Japan and South Korea, and partners on the periphery -- India, Australia and New Zealand.
A statement issued by the 16 leaders agreed to make the summit an annual event, a "forum for dialogue on broad strategic, political and economic issues of common interest and concern with the aim of promoting peace, stability and economic prosperity in East Asia."
Some participants hope the summit will in time realize a 20-year-old vision of creating an "East Asia Community," but the inaugural meeting highlighted some of the hurdles ahead.
Although Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi declared the three-hour event "a great success" marked by "a high degree of acceptance that we are one community with a common interest," views on the future direction of the initiative are far from united, and uncertainties remain over its mission and identity.
Differences persist over whether the envisaged grouping should have ASEAN and China, Japan and South Korea ("ASEAN+3") at its core; or whether it should embrace the broader "Indo-Pacific" area, including India, Australia, New Zealand - as well as Russia, which was restricted to observer status at the first summit but hopes for full membership in the future.
The distinction is important, say analysts, because the former proposal would increase the possibility of Beijing playing a dominant role, to the exclusion of American influence wielded via its allies.
The latter idea -- that of a broader membership -- would counterbalance China and dilute its influence, an outcome favored not only by Japan and India but by some ASEAN members as well.
A Japanese foreign ministry official said afterwards there had been no agreement over whether ASEAN+3 or the 16-member group should drive the process.
Australia, whose inclusion was resisted in some quarters because of its close ties to the U.S., made it clear that its participation in the summit would not affect its traditional alliance.
Prime Minister John Howard in Kuala Lumpur emphasized the importance of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, a 17-year-old group of countries on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
"Self-evidently APEC is the premier body and its great advantage is that it does bring the United States to this region," he told journalists.
"Who can deny the importance of the security role of the United States in this region?"
Howard said "indulging in comparative regional architecture" would be a mistake, adding that all groupings had a role to play.
Over the next decade a series of free trade agreements in Asia - including ASEAN-South Korea, ASEAN-China, ASEAN-Japan, ASEAN-India and ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand -- are due to come into effect
Some participants at Wednesday's three-hour summit want to explore the possibility of those various deals in the future being linked up into a mega free-trade zone stretching from India to New Zealand.
India in particular is keen on the idea of a European Union-style common market in an area that accounts for half of the world's population and 21 percent of global trade.
The diversity of political and economic systems in a region that includes communist systems, democracies of various shades and a military junta could complicate such move, however.
Apart from those differences, the 16 countries also range from China and India with populations of more than one billion each to Brunei with just 370,000 citizens; and from the world's second largest economy, Japan, to Cambodia and Laos, both listed by the U.N. among the world's 50 poorest countries.
Unresolved issues among the 16 include the festering animosity between China and Japan -- Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao refused to hold a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on the sidelines of the summit -- and unhappiness over Burma's continuing clampdown on democracy campaigners.
Ralph Cossa, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Pacific Forum, said the U.S. should not be worried about its exclusion from the East Asia initiative.
Noting that the grouping's mission, objectives and priorities remained largely undefined, Cossa said much will depend on how, or if, the new architecture evolves and interacts with the U.S. and other regional institutions.
"To the extent this new grouping signals its willingness to coexist with Washington, and is not seen as threatening or attempting to undermine Washington's bilateral alliances, its own central role in East Asian security affairs, or the broader Asia-Pacific regional institutions in which it participates, there is little reason to expect objections from Washington or a serious effort to discourage or derail this or any other regional community building efforts."
Cossa also said that unless China, Japan and South Korea effectively managed their respective nationalist tendencies, it was difficult to envisage a true East Asian community taking shape.
China had hoped to host next year's East Asia Summit, but it was decided in Kuala Lumpur that the events would be held back-to-back with annual ASEAN meetings, which rotate among ASEAN's 10 members -- Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma and Brunei.
The next East Asia Summit will therefore be held in the Philippines.
Dr. Eric Teo Chu Cheow of the Singapore Institute for International Affairs (SIIA) observed earlier this year that for Beijing to have hosted the second summit would have been a boost for China, enabling it to "affirm the group's agenda, scope and goals in a more decisive way."
Washington Wants Allies Included in New Asian Regional Grouping (Jul. 25, 2005)
Australia Worries Bid to Join Asian Grouping Could Affect Alliance With US (Apr. 26, 2005)
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