Southeast Asian leaders today approved Malaysia’s long-held dream to hold a summit of East Asian countries, seen as an important step toward creating a strong Asia trading bloc.
Overcoming initial objections by Indonesia, the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting at a summit in the Laotian capital decided to let Malaysia host the first East Asia Summit in 2005, according to a summit statement.
It will draw the 10 members of ASEAN and China, Japan and South Korea.
Those 13 countries already meet every year during the annual ASEAN summits, as “ASEAN plus 3,” but former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had long championed the additional summit in aspirations for a trade bloc to rival the European Union and North America.
Today’s statement said the ASEAN plus 3 meetings would be transformed into the East Asia Summit. It was likely to take place in December of next year.
Indonesia initially argued that the additional meeting would be cosmetic and wasteful, and wanted any new annual summit to be expanded to include Australia, New Zealand and India – but that was opposed by Malaysia, which has had uneasy relations with Australia.
Some ASEAN countries are concerned that their grouping would become a junior partner to an East Asia bloc, subsumed by the mighty economies of China, Japan and South Korea.
“That’s a concern. One issue is how to maintain the central role of ASEAN,” Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangkhetkheow said. “We don’t know whether ASEAN is capable of leading or not,” he said.
ASEAN leaders decided to ask senior diplomats to study the implications for the region of forming the new bloc. The study will be submitted to ASEAN foreign ministers who will meet in the Philippines in March.
ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Mahathir’s campaign for an East Asia Summit initially drew lukewarm responses from Japan and South Korea, because of pressure from their ally, the United States.
The reluctance eroded when the 1997 Asian financial crisis forced regional leaders to consider new levels of co-operation.
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