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Bigger steps towards Asian integration
Eric Teo Chu Cheow  Updated: 2004-12-21 09:06

The recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit held in Vientiane, Laos on November 28-30, could have broken new ground in Asian integration and community-building. Optimism was high following the conclusion of the 10th ASEAN Summit, as well as the back-to-back summit meetings between ASEAN and its Asian-Pacific partners, China, Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), India, Australia and New Zealand. India's increasing role in Asian integration was of particular significance.

Equally significant was the holding of the second High-Level Conference on Asian Economic Integration, held in Tokyo in mid-November 2004, organized by the New Delhi-based Research Information System (RIS) of Non-Aligned Countries. The RIS-organized and Sasakawa Peace Foundation-sponsored meeting was the second in a series, which began in New Delhi last autumn. The third conference is scheduled to be held in Beijing next year. The Chinese partner in this series of conferences is the Development Research Centre of the State Council.

This series of conferences, actively pioneered by New Delhi-based RIS, clearly involves India in East Asian integration. India wants to be part of the first stage of this integration, which could be officially launched as early as next November in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. India has pledged to fully contribute to Asia's economic co-operation and integration, ranging from energy and financial co-operation to IT and trade. It has insisted on how Asia's tremendous financial assets (in terms of forex reserves) could be effectively used to enhance Asia's bargaining power on the world stage with other established or emerging entities, such as the European Union (EU) and North America Free Trade Area (NAFTA), or even the emerging groupings in Latin America, the Middle East or Africa.

Regionalism is on the rise and East Asia should not be left out of this global trend. India knows that it would have to primarily obtain the tacit consent of Japan and China to join the future East Asian community, after having successfully wooed ASEAN. In Tokyo, India also signalled the birth of a "new India" and its new mentality of openness and regionalism. As an indication of this new thinking, four young parliamentarians from India's four biggest political parties attended the conference to highlight India's "new" outlook in terms of business, trade, investment and integration. The Indians also insisted that their "open economic policy" is now irreversible as all political parties fully share this goal. According to them, this should encourage East Asia to embrace India within its future community, which the Indians have dubbed "JACIK" or the "Japan, ASEAN, China, India and the Republic of Korea" grouping.

This idea of "JACIK" appears to have also made some progress in an official sense at the ASEAN Vientiane Summit. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attended the ASEAN-India Summit and had an invaluable occasion to informally meet his counterparts from China and Japan. Singh, famous for his liberal stance in economic management, reiterated the crucial importance of East Asian integration to India and vice versa, and pitched India's "new thinking" to his Asian counterpart as "an irreversible process," which should also help develop East Asian regionalism.

On their end, ASEAN leaders formalized their intention to work even more closely with China and India, in order to ensure their own prosperity and greater global influence.

Of particular significance was the speech to ASEAN business leaders by Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who called for greater ASEAN integration with China and India. This official acknowledgement of Beijing's and New Delhi's growing clout and importance to ASEAN was significant, as ASEAN in fact completed negotiating its schedule of liberalization of goods within the future ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (FTA) last month. The two partners should now be able to meet their FTA schedule by 2010. On the other hand, India's future place within East Asia appears to have "taken a big step forward."

In fact, ASEAN is currently negotiating a FTA with India, just as Indian Prime Minister Singh declared in Vientiane that trade between India and ASEAN should more than double to US$30 billion by 2007.

ASEAN, after pledging to accelerate its own development of an ASEAN Economic Community five years earlier than scheduled, also decided at the summit to begin FTA negotiations with Japan and the ROK next year, giving further impetus to the "ASEAN+3" process, just as Chinese, Japanese and ROK leaders also met at summit level in Vientiane to strengthen Northeast Asian co-operation, notably in energy security and resolving the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula through the six-party talks mechanism.

The strengthening of the Northeast Asian pillar in "ASEAN+3" is always deemed crucial for the success of any future pan-East Asian regional framework. For the first time, ASEAN also invited Australia and New Zealand to the summit, as ASEAN prepares to begin negotiating FTAs with both Canberra and Wellington next year, which could now hope to belong to the future Asian grouping.

Finally, the concept of an Asian economic bloc got a major boost at the Vientiane summit. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo called on ASEAN to "embrace China, Japan, the ROK and India." Such an economic bloc, according to Arroyo, could "hold its own" in future negotiations with the United States, Europe or other emerging economic entities. This led to a crucial decision to organize an East Asian Summit (EAS) in Kuala Lumpur next year, when Malaysia takes over the chairmanship of ASEAN.

An ASEAN consensus on an EAS was reached after Indonesia accepted the idea to transform the "ASEAN+3" framework into an EAS, with the possible addition of India, Australia and New Zealand, thus forging a long-term Asian economic, social, cultural and political community.

But the EAS framework should remain open and not be exclusive. Pragmatically, it should not be guided by feelings of "Asian nationalism," but instead, seek to improve co-operation with the United States and the EU in a global partnership. The Vientiane summit has taken the first step forward towards building a 3 billion-strong East Asian community, and may ultimately be remembered for this "monumental Asian step forward."

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