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Step closer to a unified Asia
Eric Teo Chu CheowChina Daily  Updated: 2005-12-12 05:24

The inaugural East Asia Summit (EAS) will be held in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, under Malaysian chairmanship, at the same time as the ASEAN and "ASEAN+3" summits.

It is probably accurate to say that thanks to Europe, Asians were brought together within "ASEAN+3," as the latter was initially formed as a loose co-ordinating grouping within Asia-Europe Meeting or ASEM, officially launched in March 1996. The so-called Asian caucus then had seven ASEAN countries (the "original five," Brunei and Viet Nam), China, Japan and the ROK.

"ASEAN+3" then became formalized at the 1999 summit and functional co-operation was effectively extended beyond the annual summits and meetings of foreign, economic and trade ministers from the participating countries (now numbering 13) to cover health, education and social affairs over the past six years.

But two other important factors have influenced the final choice of participants in the EAS in Kuala Lumpur, which should number 16 when launched.

First, the United States will not be included in this summit, unlike the recently-concluded APEC meeting in Busan, and hence there is a need to cater for its non-participation.

Second, the rapid rise of India in the past few years has made it necessary for ASEAN to bring the country into the mainstream of Asian regional integration in some form.

Bearing in mind these two trends, ASEAN foreign ministers in a retreat in Cebu, the Philippines in May, agreed on three criteria for membership of the new EAS club.

First, nations must be dialogue partners of ASEAN; second, there must be substantial economic links with the region, and lastly, they must sign the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Co-operation (TAC), before being admitted to the EAS.

China, Japan and the ROK automatically qualify; India qualified too, when it signed the TAC last December. But it was only after much careful consideration and negotiation that Australia and New Zealand agreed to sign the TAC. The last two countries were also included in the EAS, probably as a strategic assurance to the United States, namely that the EAS would not in any way go against the fundamental interests of Washington within the region, as the Americans had initially feared.

The agenda for the EAS appears to be still under consideration, as the grouping should perhaps be more attuned towards socio-economic matters, given the present difficulties in bridging serious and fundamental political contentions.

More crucially, there is now a lively debate on whether the future agenda of the EAS and its nascent organization would be focused exclusively on economics and social affairs alone or if it should also embrace security anti-terrorism co-ordination and other aspects of comprehensive security.

The recent Fourth High-Level Conference on Asian Economic Integration, held in New Delhi, raised this eventuality without a conclusive outcome.

Many observers had forecast the EAS would envision a sort of pan-Asian Free Trade Area (FTA), to begin to build towards an Asian Economic Community, whilst others have cited the possibility of building first an Asian Energy Community, along the lines of the European Coal and Steel Community (amongst its initial six members) in the 1950s.

Energy co-operation would certainly be high on the agenda, as Asian countries, ranging from China and Japan to Indonesia and the Philippines, battle the current oil price hike and the ensuing inflationary spiral that may slow down Asian economies.

But more fundamentally, there is also the live matter of the future relationship between "ASEAN+3" and the EAS, as the former already has intensified co-operation and connections in almost every field, which the three new members could tag on to. Or should the EAS be considered an "ASEAN+3+3" grouping, which India would not feel comfortable with, as it would then be relegated to the third circle?

In fact, the future relationship between the EAS (either as an "ASEAN+3+3" or "ASEAN+6") and the current "ASEAN+3" would probably be the most contentious matter to be effectively settled in Kuala Lumpur.

The debate in Kuala Lumpur could also focus on the nature of the future organization, which should eventually emanate from the EAS, notably if it should expand to include such aspiring members as Russia, Mongolia, Pakistan and others.

Besides the crucial matter of the future agenda, doubts have been raised about whether a new Asian organization or community could be officially launched. Initial hopes and aspirations of a nascent Asian Economic Community may be premature in Kuala Lumpur, and may have to be saved for the next summit, reportedly scheduled to be held in Singapore in two years' time.

The author is a council member of the Singapore Institute for International Affairs

(China Daily 12/12/2005 page4)

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