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Politics: False dawn in East Asia

Contributed by Anonymous on Thursday, January 05 @ 07:02:15 CST

International: PoliticsSaturday, December 17, 2005

By Baradan Kuppusamy

Leaders billed this week's inaugural East Asia summit as the dawn of a new era, but critics, pointing to the sheer diversity among member states, say it will end up as yet another talk shop.

The United States, for once, was looking in from the cold, as 16 nations - the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and six regional powers plus Russia as an observer - held the inaugural East Asia summit on Wednesday.

The grouping brought in China, South Korea and Japan as well as India, Australia and New Zealand. It combines countries whose economies tote up a gross domestic product of US$8.3 trillion and account for a fifth of global trade.

"The East Asia summit was a great and unqualified success," said Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, host of the summit. "Let me repeat it, the summit was a great success. There was a high degree of acceptance that we are one community with a common interest in peace, stability and prosperity."

To the criticism the summit is just another talk shop, he said, "Leaders have a common interest and understanding - we have to develop on it."

But exactly what this community is, where it is heading and whether it can involve such a vast and diverse region that encompasses two of the world's largest populations - China and India - were questions left lingering at the end of the summit.

Significantly, it came almost as an adjunct to 11th summit of ASEAN, which ended earlier in the week. The more compact and cohesive ASEAN includes Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines and Indonesia.

The half-day East Asia summit saw national agendas of smaller nations such as Malaysia and Vietnam clashing with emerging powers such as China and India, and an effort by established powers Japan, South Korea and Australia to speak up for the absent US in an effort to contain China.

A week ago, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad - who had first mooted the East Asia summit idea in 1991 - again poured cold water over the event, saying the inclusion of Australia and New Zealand was geographically improper as they were, in reality, not Asian. However, he had no objection to Russia participating.

The US declined to join because of a reluctance to sign a treaty of amity and friendship, renouncing the use of force in the region. Russia and Australia signed the treaty and got invitations.

The summit saw Japan and China continue their spat over unresolved World War II differences, particularly Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine, where top war criminals are buried.

China and South Korea cancelled their traditional bilateral meetings with Japan on the sidelines of ASEAN summit, showing that deep differences continue behind the public smiles. Some media reports described Japan as isolated at the East Asia summit. Badawi refused to answer questions on Sino-Japanese relations after the summit ended, saying the event was not the forum for such issues.

The participation of Australia, regarded as "America's sheriff" for its role in Iraq and participation in the "war on terrorism", came in for criticism. Despite such initial misgivings, most analysts and summit watchers say the summit got off on a good footing.

"The very fact that all the invited leaders attended and that they discussed and agreed to some things is itself a success," political scientist Murugesu Pathmanaban told IPS. "It is the first step to major things in future, given time."

The final declaration the leaders signed at the summit's conclusion reads, "We have established the East Asia summit as a forum for dialogue on broad strategic, political and economic issues of common interest and concern with the aim of promoting peace, stability and economic prosperity in East Asia."

They will meet annually on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, the next East Asia summit scheduled for December 2006 in the Philippines.

Proponents of the grouping want foundations laid for an economic and political alliance that one day might rival those of North America and Europe - not an unrealistic goal, given that by 2050 three of the world's four largest economies are predicted to be Asian.

But the sheer diversity and vastness of the region, analysts say, works against such a union. Size is a great divide. China's population of 1.3 billion people dwarfs Singapore's 4 million. Compare the tiny monarchy of Brunei, with 350,000 people, with India, the world's largest democracy with 1 billion.

Another divide is wealth. Japan's gross national income per capita of $37,000 makes Cambodia's $320 look like peanuts. Indonesia's millions live on less then a dollar a day, which sharply contrasts with the wealth of those in Malaysia, Singapore or Japan. Japan's or India's democracy contrasts starkly with Myanmar's human rights abuses. Culturally, East Asia is a patchwork of religions, value systems and political ideologies.

But there are common interests too.

The inaugural summit put in place a new and loose structure to boost East Asian cooperation in trade and security - piracy, terrorism, bird flu, lower trade barriers and energy security.

Leaders recognized that their countries are at varying stages of development, and that national interests will come into play.

"The challenge is to shape the emerging forum to serve the long-term interests of those involved," Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said after the summit.

"You don't always get spectacular fireworks, big decisions and major changes in policy. But step by step, each time you meet, you are cultivating ground, keeping it fertile, maintaining the relationships and dealing with problems before they arise, before they become serious."

To ensure the smaller nations of ASEAN get the best out of the East Asia summit, it was agreed that ASEAN will be in the driver's seat despite the participation of powerhouses such as China and India or even Russia.

"The declaration symbolizes that cooperation in East Asia has entered a new stage," China's Premier Wen Jiabao said.

The leaders also said in their declaration that the new grouping would be an "open, inclusive, transparent and outward-looking forum" and not dominated by any one power.

"The new grouping will have a major say in shaping Asia's engagement with itself and rest of the world," a senior diplomat from Thailand said. "It is not another talk shop."

Analysts say whatever ASEAN may do to remain in the East Asian driver's seat, it is inevitable that big power influence will come into play. "China, Japan and India increasingly cast large foot prints across the region and eventually across the world," said an observer.

Japan is keen to ensure that China does not dominate the emerging East Asian community. Russia, a rising star once again after years of turmoil, is knocking on East Asia's doors demanding a front row seat. India is pushing for a wider role in the Asian economic community. Indonesia, with a population of 200 million, is a brooding giant, sidelined at the summit but with the potential to be a mini-power if it gets its domestic act together.

"We have all agreed that the East Asian community will be a reality in the future," Badawi said.

(Inter Press Service)



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