KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Dec. 14 -- Asian leaders agreed Wednesday to create a new, loosely united regional grouping, including India and Australia, to work together on combating Asia's economic, security and political problems.
The 16-nation association, which will hold annual summit conferences, significantly widened the circle of cooperation among countries represented by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and a sister group, ASEAN Plus Three -- China, Japan and South Korea.
The formation of the new group, decided at the first East Asian Summit, marked an attempt to respond to a conviction among Asian leaders that their region requires a stronger independent voice in world affairs and a new forum without the leading role the United States has played since World War II.
"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," a communique said.
"This is something that is accepted by us all," added Malaysia's prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who hosted the summit in Kuala Lumpur in tandem with ASEAN's regular annual meetings.
But by accepting Australia, New Zealand and India into the new group, the leaders left unanswered questions about what goals it would pursue, how unified it would try to become and how it would relate to the long-standing ASEAN and ASEAN Plus Three groupings. A team of senior Asian officials was assigned to weigh these issues and bring proposals to the next East Asia Summit, scheduled for a year from now in the Philippines, Abdullah said.
One question they will have to address is Russia's desire to participate, raised by President Vladimir Putin in an appearance as an observer here and an address to the gathered Asian leaders. The United States, which participates in other Asian-Pacific groupings, was not invited to the inaugural summit and did not participate even as an observer.
U.S. diplomats earlier had expressed concern about being left out, pointing out long-standing U.S. interests in the region and the U.S. military's dominant role in Asian security. But as the group was broadened to include Australia, India and New Zealand, it became clear there was plenty of weight to balance off Chinese influence and, particularly through Australia, a ready channel for U.S. concerns.
Underlying the ambiguity about the new group's role and degrees of membership was concern over evolving power relationships as China becomes stronger and increasingly willing -- even eager -- to exercise regional leadership and Japan moves strategically closer to the United States.
China and Japan also have been divided by increasingly tense differences over Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's regular visits to a shrine honoring Japan's war dead and rival claims to oil deposits and several small islands in the East China Sea. Those differences were evident in Kuala Lumpur, where Premier Wen Jiabao refused to sit down with Koizumi for a regular China-Japan-South Korea meeting.
Seeking to soften the atmosphere, Koizumi leaned over during a signing ceremony Wednesday to ask Wen to lend him a pen. When the Chinese premier smiled and handed it over, assembled diplomats applauded.
Aside from the politesse, however, Japan joined Indonesia and Singapore in leading the fight to include India, Australia and New Zealand in the new grouping, diplomats said.
As originally conceived by Malaysia and pushed by China, the new summit group was to include only the 10 ASEAN countries along with China, Japan and South Korea. That would have made it a vessel for Chinese diplomatic leadership in a forum distinct from other groups -- such as the ASEAN Regional Forum or the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum -- that also include the United States.
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