KUALA LUMPUR - 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.
brought in China, South Korea and Japan as well as
India, Australia and New Zealand. It combines
economies tote up a gross
domestic product of US$8.3 trillion and account
for a fifth of global trade.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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."
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.
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.
there are common interests too.
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.
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
"The declaration symbolizes that
cooperation in East Asia has entered a new stage,"
China's Premier Wen Jiabao said.
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.
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
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.