FORMER Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad pronounced scathing judgment last Wednesday on his own brainchild, the first East Asian summit.
Mahathir, who first pushed for a summit of East Asian leaders 14 years ago, called a news conference to say he felt the summit to be held in the Malaysian capital next week was misnamed.
"We are not going to have an East Asian summit. We are going to have an East Asia-Australasia summit," Mahathir said, adding that the inclusion of Australia and New Zealand into the fold had subverted the development of a genuinely Asian forum.
"Now Australia is basically European and it has made clear to the rest of the world it is the deputy sheriff to America and therefore, Australia's view would represent not the East but the views reflecting the stand of America."
Mahathir pushed his idea for an East Asia Economic Grouping in 1991, as global trade talks were bogging down. Washington opposed the idea, fearing it could lead to a trade bloc that would rival the European Union (EU) and North America, which was then consolidating into the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA).
Instead, a much wider grouping of Asian and Western powers, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, was born. Mahathir boycotted the first APEC meeting in Seattle in 1993, but his idea has eventually led, a decade later, to an East Asian summit.
The summit, on Dec. 14, will involve leaders from the 10 member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
With faltering global trade talks again providing the backdrop, the original idea of an Asian free-trade bloc may well come back on the agenda after this summit, diplomats said.
AP adds from Kuala Lumpur: Mahathir Mohamad, who had conceived of an East Asian caucus as a way to counter U.S. influence in the region, appeared bitter that his vision has been corrupted with the entry of Australia and New Zealand, two culturally European nations that are close allies of Washington.
He predicted that the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur on December 14 will not find a common voice on anything because of the two Pacific nations' presence, as well as Japan's pro-U.S. policies.
"I am not very optimistic because East Asian countries tend to yield to strong pressures, which makes the whole grouping quite useless," he said.
Mahathir, who stepped down in October 2003 after 22 years in power, said the new grouping no longer honours his vision of "a consultative group where people of East Asia can sit around the table and take a common stand on WTO and globalization."
"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.
"I am afraid that knowing Asians -- who are always very polite and do not like to appear to be recalcitrant -- the views of Australia are likely to dominate this East Asian-Australasian grouping," he said.
This comment showed that he has not forgotten the description by Australia's then-Prime Minister Paul Keating of Mahathir as recalcitrant in 1993. Keating's remark plunged Malaysia-Australia relations to an all-time low and led to Mahathir's visceral dislike for Australia.
Mahathir also warned that Japan might be U.S. spokesman in the East Asia Summit. "We cannot take Japan's stand as being East Asian. It is likely to reflect Japan's very strong relations with the United States," he said.
Mahathir said India's participation was fine because it is Asian.
AFP adds: Wednesday, diplomats from the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, opened talks in Malaysia's main city, Kuala Lumpur, to discuss regional cooperation and threats of terrorism and bird flu in preparation for a meeting of their leaders next Monday.
They also discussed the role of ASEAN in the East Asian Summit to be held on the last day of the gathering, December 14, when ASEAN government heads join counterparts from China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
That grouping accounts for about 3.0 billion people, or half the world's population, and a fifth of global trade, but the goal of the meeting remains unclear. Some countries, led by India, want the summit to result in firm moves toward an East Asia Community, along the lines of the European Union, followed by the world's biggest free trade area.
However, some Southeast Asian countries and China fear that implementing the grand vision of an East Asia community could overshadow ASEAN. Also, Beijing is reluctant to share the top billing with economic rival India in any mega Asian club.
The differences have delayed the drafting of a final summit declaration.
"The senior officials are in the final stages of working on the Kuala Lumpur declaration on the East Asia Summit," ASEAN spokesman M.C. Abad told reporters. But they will leave it to leaders to map out the future direction, he said.
"This declaration will convey a message of ASEAN's centrality in the process and at the same time, recognise the role of countries participating in the East Asia Summit in the community building efforts in the region," he said.
If India and others have their way, such a community would go beyond simply easing the flow of goods as stressed in the region's free-trade agreements, moving to liberalise investment, export of services and the movement of people.
Some Asian countries have even proposed an eventual common currency, as Europe has instituted.
But ASEAN members caution against haste.
"The process has just begun, and we don't know yet whether it will lead to or contribute towards East Asian community building," said Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa.
Founded in 1967 as a bulwark against communism, ASEAN -- comprising Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam - has little to show in terms of political clout even though it holds about 300 meetings a year.
Its biggest failure has been on Myanmar, whose military junta has maintained an iron grip on the country and kept pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest despite frustrated pleas by its neighbours to democratise.
Myanmar's politics won't be discussed in formal conference sessions. On the agenda, however, are developments on the Korean peninsula, terrorism, maritime security and the threat of bird flu.