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ASEAN: Leaders Gather With Focus On Upcoming East Asia Summit

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) began its three-day annual summit in Malaysia today by signing a declaration that commits to drafting a charter. Analysts say the charter would strengthen ASEAN's structure at a time when its 10 members are looking for ways to balance interests regarding China, India, Japan, and the United States. Toward that goal, Malaysia on 14 December will host the first meeting of the East Asia Summit, which includes the 10 ASEAN countries plus six other regional players. Some Asian leaders say they hope the East Asia Summit can become a balance against regional groupings of Europe and North America. Significantly, the United States has not been invited.

Prague, 12 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- As the annual ASEAN summit began in Malaysia today, delegates already were looking ahead to the 14 December inaugural meeting of the so-called East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur.

The East Asia Summit will include leaders from all 10 of the mostly small Southeast Asian countries in ASEAN -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. It also will include officials from six other countries that play roles in the geopolitics of the Asia Pacific -- China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. The United States has, pointedly, not been invited.

ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong said the goal of the East Asia Summit is to explore ways that ASEAN can become more integrated with its neighbors. "This is the Asia growth period," Ong said. "How do the Asian countries engage each other? How do we organize a more predictable and stable way of engaging with one another?"

Some experts say the ASEAN countries will use the East Asia Summit to try to redefine their roles with powerful players in the region like China, India, Japan, and the United States. Hiro Katsumata, an analyst at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, said, "The idea of this East Asian Summit -- at least for ASEAN -- the main purpose is to balance ASEAN's interests regarding the external powers such as China, India, Japan, and so on."

Robert Broadfoot, an analyst at a firm in Hong Kong called Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, sees the East Asia Summit as part of broader efforts that could takes years to come to fruition. "What you're seeing now is a gathering of a group of countries that are testing out what types of relationships they are most comfortable with," he said. "I think over the next 10 years, you're going to get a whole lot of new acronyms -- coming up with brand new groupings. Or you're going to get old acronyms -- like ASEAN -- being completely redefined from what they were before."

The idea of the East Asia Summit was proposed in 1991 by then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir originally intended it as way for the 10 ASEAN countries to get together with China, Japan, and South Korea in a forum not dominated by the presence of the United States.

But Japan, Indonesia, and Singapore have their own concerns. They invited three other countries to the East Asia Summit -- Australia, New Zealand, and India -- in an attempt to counterbalance China's growing economic and political influence in the region.

Mahathir last week criticized the inclusion of Australia and New Zealand, saying they are neither "East, nor are they Asia." China also is angry about those invitations. Beijing views Australia, New Zealand, and India as being too close to Japan and the United States.

Analysts say differences between China and Japan could ultimately derail the attempts to create a powerful and unified Asia grouping.

(with news agencies)

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