Unease over India's call for East Asia trade community
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 3.0 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 recent business function in Melbourne.
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 (EU) 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 December 14, the culmination of week-long high-level meetings that started from 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 December 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.
The East Asia Summit, the brainchild of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, was originally meant to bring together ASEAN members - Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam - and China, Japan and South Korea.
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. Its political clout has also become suspect because of its inability to force rogue member Myanmar to allow democracy and free pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
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.
"They want to be in the center of things. Fair enough. But the passengers have the right to know where the car is going. Otherwise why will they be in it?" he said.
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.
A copy, obtained by The Associated Press, describes the summit as a "forum for dialogue on broad strategic, political and economic issues of common interest."
It makes no mention of building an East Asia community, as originally envisaged, which has led to a deadlock among the 16 summit countries on how to improve the draft, despite two rounds of negotiations last month. More negotiations are now expected to finalise the wording.
Indian officials would not say if the proposed declaration is a disappointment or acceptable.
The Indian High Commissioner, or ambassador, R.L. Narayan, would only say that the declaration should be a "visionary document, which would set out clearly the goals."
"We see this (summit) as a building block, a very important building block" in fulfilling India's vision of creating an economic community, he said.
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.
"It is best to see what the leaders (achieve) out of the first meeting, as they draw and chart their expectations, their aspirations of East Asia summit," he said.
Analysts have little confidence in the summit.
"The East Asia Summit is another failure of ASEAN to come out with anything concrete," said Abdul Razak Baginda, executive director of Malaysian Strategic Research Center. "The East Asia Summit is just another empty shell. ASEAN pays too much attention to the form rather than the substance, this is its main fault."
The East Asia grouping, in its earlier form, was conceived as a tool to counter U.S. influence in the region by utilising the might of China. But with the entry of U.S. 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 The AP.