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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 December 2005, 09:25 GMT
Asian powers reach for new community
By Sarah Buckley
BBC News

The inaugural meeting of the East Asia Summit on Wednesday should be cause for celebration.

Asean leaders sit round the table at the plenary session of the 11th ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur, 12 December 2005
The Asean meeting table is about to get even bigger

Sixteen nations, representing nearly half the world's population and a fifth of its trade, sat down together at one table for the first time.

But the group's size and diversity - it includes the world's poorest countries (Laos), one of its most repressive (Burma), alongside wealthy Australia and Japan - raise serious doubts it can be much more than a talking shop.

The idea behind the East Asia Summit was first conceived in the early 1990s by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad as a way of countering US influence in the area, or a "caucus without Caucasians".

This, he envisaged, would include the current 10 members of Asean (Association of South East Nations) with South Korea, China and Japan.

It's a symbol of East Asia coming of age
Amitav Acharya, IDSS

His vision was actually realised eight years ago, in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, when these three regional economic heavyweights were welcomed to Asean meetings as key dialogue partners, in a grouping that became known as Asean plus three.

But when proposals emerged to formalise this new grouping into an East Asia Summit, some member-states pushed for the inclusion of three more countries - Australia, New Zealand and India - as well.

The decision to expand the membership points to one of the many tensions at play within the new grouping.

Asean hopes the inclusion of these three countries - all democratic and US-friendly - will prevent the East Asia Summit from being dominated by China.

China, for its part, is keen to be part of the summit to expand its diplomatic influence in the region.

India, as another emerging economic power, is also seeking a more muscular regional role.

The empty chair

The superpower which is notable by its absence in this new caucus is the US, leading some analysts to speculate that Washington is losing influence in the region.

But Randall Schriver, former US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said that although Washington was initially concerned about being left out, "there is a greater comfort level" now countries such as Australia, India and Japan are at the table.

"The need to be in the room... is less of a concern," he said.

Mr Schriver added that Japan has indicated the East Asia Summit's initial focus will be trade, rather than security.

The opposite has been recently true of Central Asian grouping the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, whose meeting in the summer culminated in the US being asked to reduce its military presence in the region.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Adbullah Ahmad Badawi, centre, holds hands with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, right, and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao,  Monday, Dec. 12, 2005.
Leaders of China (left and Japan (right) are currently feuding

If the East Asia Summit's primary focus is trade, then, could it end up providing the framework for an East Asian economic community, even an eventual version of the EU?

Analysts say that any progress towards this end will be very slow.

Steven Tsang, a reader in politics at St Anthony's College, Oxford, said the East Asia Summit members lacked the trust that exists between EU member states, and had a far greater range of political systems.

"The comparison with Europe is not really going to take us very far," he said.

For example, two of the most dominant economies in the group, China and Japan, are currently at loggerheads over what Beijing sees as Tokyo's failure to make amends for its colonial and wartime abuses in the region.

There is also a lack of trust between China and India, who are jostling for position as emerging Asian powers.

Amitav Acharya, deputy director of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, said that these schisms, compounded by the absence of a potentially power-broking US, meant there was "no euphoria" about the East Asia Summit within academic and diplomatic circles.

But he said that its strength lay in its balancing of Chinese power, and its reminder to the US that it needs to stay involved if it is not to be left out of the picture.

"It's a symbol of East Asia coming of age," he said.

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26 Jul 05 |  Asia-Pacific
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26 Jul 05 |  Asia-Pacific

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