"ONE vision, one identity, one community", proclaim giant blue ASEAN banners straddling the six-lane motorway from Kuala Lumpur's gleaming airport into Malaysia's capital.
For ASEAN's true believers, next week's inaugural East Asian Summit, bringing together leaders of 16 nations including Australia and New Zealand, will be the first tentative step towards the long-term goal of creating an East Asian Community.
For the first time Asia's rising giants, India and China, will sit together at a regional forum. For the first time in post-World War II history, the US will be absent from a multilateral gathering encompassing the leading Asian powers and Australia.
And in another first, Australia will be present as a negotiating partner, a historic milestone for Asia's "odd-man in" after half a century of patient diplomacy.
The dream of a genuine East Asian Community would embrace nearly half the world's population and about 25 per cent of global gross domestic product. The ASEAN vision would see steady progress towards closer economic integration along the lines of the post-war evolution of the European Union.
Already intra-regional trade in East Asia accounts for around 54 per cent of the region's total trade. China's trade with the 10-nation ASEAN grouping has been growing at 20 per cent annually.
Proponents of the East Asian Community cite the phenomenal growth in regional trade and investment, driven first by Japan and now by China and rising India, as a firm foundation for building a future institutionalised regional grouping. The EAC, they argue, would allow the emerging concert of great powers, China, Japan and India, to set aside age-old rivalries in the interest of a greater Asian community.
Singapore's elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew sees the summit process as a restoration of influence of two ancient civilisations, China and India.
"It would mean great prosperity for the region, but also could mean a tussle for power," he argues. East Asia, as historians note, has never before simultaneously experienced a powerful China and a strong Japan.
The multitude of political differences that already exist within ASEAN and across Asia will ensure that next week's summit will be remembered chiefly for the fact that it happened, rather than any concrete outcomes. In their final communique the leaders will agree to meet again and most likely mention avenues for future "functional co-operation", such as combating pandemics and terrorism.
ASEAN's official confidence about the evolution of the East Asia Summit process remains threatened by both internal and external factors. Within ASEAN there is deep disagreement about the way forward between the key protagonists, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Externally, in north Asia increasingly poisonous relations between China and Japan could block any clear resolution on the future of the East Asian Summit process.
Almost 40 years old, ASEAN itself remains a fractured community. ASEAN specialists still endlessly debate whether any real sense of regional identity has evolved since the grouping formed in 1967. The ASEAN 10 are still far from building a genuine economic community and, as Burma's increasingly erratic military junta graphically demonstrates, even further apart on political integration.
ASEAN leaders next week are expected to agree on the creation of an ASEAN charter that would move away from the group's enshrined consensus approach and allow the eventual development of more formal, binding institutional rules governing relations between member states.
Malaysia, which proposed this week's summit, still wants any institutionalised East Asian Community to be a more exclusive club based on the ASEAN Plus Three grouping of China, Japan, and South Korea. In Kuala Lumpur's vision the three newcomers, India, Australia and Japan, would attend leaders summits but the future co-existing core group would be ASEAN Plus Three. It is a vision strongly supported by China but opposed by the natural leader of ASEAN, Indonesia.
Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who first proposed an East Asian club without Australia 15 years ago, sounded off this week about Canberra's inclusion which, he predicted, would cause the summit to fail.
"Australia is basically European and has made clear to the rest of the world that it is the deputy sheriff for America. Australia and New Zealand are not really East nor are they Asian," Mahathir added, even contending that Australian views could "dominate" the forum.
The inclusion of India, Australia, and New Zealand at the meeting would not have happened without Jakarta's firm backing.
Indonesia sees things very differently from Kuala Lumpur. The more inclusive 16-nation group should not be defined by geography, the Indonesians argue. Jakarta also sees the wider group as a long-term strategic balance to China's inexorable rise.
Another key issue for ASEAN is how the summit process would fit into the existing plethora of ASEAN meetings as well as the established APEC architecture. ASEAN governments, particularly Kuala Lumpur, are worried that ASEAN's ability to remain in the driver's seat will be eroded if the 16-nation EAS gains momentum and the "big three" make their presence felt.
Some of Jakarta's most experienced diplomatic experts question the utility of the East Asia Summit if the ASEAN Plus Three summit, inaugurated in 1997, continues to exist.
"What is the use of the new body apart from the bodies we already have?" questions former foreign minister Ali Alatas.
"It can only have logic of it replaces ASEAN Plus Three."
Veteran Indonesian ambassador Wiryono Sastrohandoyo says if the summit can simply establish a sense of direction about where it wants to go, "that would already be very good". He says the Kuala Lumpur meetings may result in two declarations, one from the ASEAN Plus Three summit and another from the East Asian Summit. He agrees there should be a process by which the ASEAN Plus Three should fade away so that the larger group takes over.
"So how are you going to get this thing together, because in the end you need to have one solid movement?" he asks.
Wiryono says Jakarta policy makers understand the importance of the inclusion of Australia, New Zealand and India. "They see the central problem as China. China is growing so fast and people are not sure of their intentions. They need a balancer and that could be India, Australia, and New Zealand - economically at least."
The dark cloud hanging over the summit lies in north Asia and the increasingly acrimonious relations between China and Japan. Normally the northern Asian plus-three meet on the sidelines of the ASEAN gatherings. This year for the first time there will be no get-together with Seoul, also at loggerheads with Tokyo.
At a security conference in Jakarta this week, regional foreign policy experts said relations between the two most powerful north Asian powers were the worst in three decades. Over two days, Chinese and Japanese delegates to the conference argued continually about the failings of the other: Beijing remains bitter about Japanese PM Junichiro Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni shrine, where war criminals are interred, while Tokyo accuses its rival of failing to understand how much Japan has changed since 1945.
Japan, its profile in ASEAN increasingly eclipsed by China's economic dynamism and clever diplomacy, has been a firm supporter of a more inclusive East Asian Summit, arguing for the admission of India, Australia and New Zealand. But its differences with Beijing over the status of the summit in relation to the established ASEAN Plus Three grouping will ensure that the summit process evolves very slowly.
Left out altogether is Washington which, given the deep schisms within East Asia, remains relatively unperturbed about its absence from the inaugural KL meeting. Should the US ever choose to sign ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Co-operation, which Australia will sign today, ASEAN would be obliged to admit Washington to the East Asia Summit under its own criteria for admission. For some US observers the symbolism of US exclusion is a matter for concern.
Kurt Campbell from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says there is little reason to fear any big diplomatic breakthrough from the summit. But he argues US policy makers need to clearly state that Washington "expects to be at the table for the next such gathering, if and when it occurs".
Canberra has been working assiduously behind the scenes to ensure that Wednesday's summit is the beginning of an important new regional dialogue.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says the future goal of an East Asian Community will emerge for practical rather than ideological reasons. It won't look like the EU, given the vastly different political relationships in the region, he says.
"The East Asia Summit is only in its very first iteration and will take some time to bed down. But we can say now that we have a regional architecture [including APEC] that serves Australia's interests well," he says.
Veteran region-watcher Jusuf Wanandi from Jakarta's Centre for Strategic and International Studies agrees. "It's only the first time. You must not expect too much. They are just getting to know each other and look at how the chemistry is going to work among them. The summit is a little bit premature but this is not the same as the Mahathir idea.
"It's open and it's inclusive. We don't want to have a geographical understanding about East Asia," Wanandi says. "We want to have an economic and political one. China does not want this to be a building block. They would like to separate ASEAN Plus Three and make the the summit simply a talkfest."
Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"