KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 6 (AP): Regional powerhouses China, India, Japan and Australia will meet 12 other countries in Asia's first summit next week, but their goal of creating an East Asian community remains distant amid differences over the pace of proposed economic integration.
India is leading the campaign within the 16 countries to push for rapid economic integration to eventually create the world's biggest free trade area of nearly 3 billion people from Bombay to Christchurch.
"It's not such a stretch to imagine a free trade area reaching from northern China to the west of India, to Stewart Island in New Zealand," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told a business function in Melbourne last week.
But he cautioned that the East Asia Summit "is only in its very first iteration and will take some time to bed down. ... It is very early days. And if there is to be an emergence of an East Asian community, it will not, in my view, be built around one institution or meeting," he said.
Also, any future community would be nothing like the European
Union because of the vast cultural, economic and political differences - the China-Japan rivalry, the maritime territorial disputes within Southeast Asia, the pariah status of Myanmar's military regime.
The East Asia Summit will be held on Dec 14, the culmination of weeklong high-level meetings that start Wednesday with networking by officials from the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
This will be followed by meetings of their economic ministers, the foreign ministers and a summit on Dec 12 of ASEAN heads of governments. The same day, ASEAN leaders will meet counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea in the so-called ASEAN Plus Three Summit.
With India's growing economic clout and persistent requests by Australia and New Zealand to come closer to Asia, ASEAN agreed to expand the inaugural summit by defining East Asia in political rather than geographical terms.
But having invited the three non-East Asian countries, the Southeast Asians are now apparently reluctant to give the East Asia Summit too much importance, fearing ASEAN will lose relevance and be subsumed by the India-China dominated East Asia process.
Already ASEAN's relevance is being questioned as its member states forge their own bilateral trade agreements outside the regional grouping.
It is not surprising then that ASEAN wants to "remains in the driver's seat" to control the direction of the East Asia Summit, said K Kesavapany, the director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
ASEAN's lukewarm treatment of the East Asia Summit is reflected in the vague joint declaration that has been drafted for the summit leaders by host Malaysia.
More negotiations are expected this week to finalise the wording.
Indian officials would not say if the proposed declaration is a disappointment or acceptable.
The Indian High Commissioner, or ambassador, RL Narayan, would only say that the declaration should be a "visionary document, which would set out clearly the goals."
Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told reporters that although the ultimate goal is to build an East Asian community, it should be left for the leaders to set the agenda and determine the pace of achieving the goal.
The East Asia grouping, in its earlier form, was conceived as a tool to counter US influence in the region by utilising the might of China. But with the entry of US allies India, Australia and New Zealand, that equation has been spoiled, especially since Japan is now aligning itself with India.
During last month's negotiations on the wording of the draft declaration, Indian and Japanese officials took toilet breaks at the same time, apparently to fine tune their strategies during fast-paced arguments, participants told newsmen.