26 Oct 2009

Asian nations jostle for power in EU-style bloc

Asia's moves toward an EU-style community covering half the world's population have sparked a backroom power play led by the United States, China and Japan, diplomats and analysts said Monday.
Leaders at a summit of 16 nations meeting in Thailand at the weekend heard the prime ministers of Australia and Japan set out competing visions for a regional bloc that would boost Asia's global clout.
But beneath the talk of unity and the "Asian Century" lie intense diplomatic manoeuvrings, with countries desperate to avoid being marginalised in a new regional framework that could still be years off.
"The waters may be calm on the surface, but the undercurrent is sometimes turbulent," a veteran Southeast Asian diplomat told AFP after the summit in the Thai beach resort of Hua Hin.

A central question is the role that the United States and China would play in any future grouping.
"Some countries want the United States to be part of a future regional framework as a counterbalance to China's influence," the diplomat said, asking not to be named.
Japanese premier Yukio Hatoyama, who pushed his plan at the summit for an East Asian community that could "lead the world", would not be drawn on the extent of proposed US involvement despite Tokyo's close ties to Washington.
But Australian leader Kevin Rudd's vision for an Asia-Pacific Community by 2020 explicitly includes Washington.
"Whether we like it or not, I think we could not avoid a US role because the US is a big country which has powers both in economic and security matters," said Chaiwat Khamchoo, an analyst at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"Some countries in the region are suspicious of each other so they want the US to play a role."
After the distractions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has only recently re-engaged with the region, particularly in Southeast Asia where Washington's hard line on military-ruled Burma kept it at a distance.
With Japan kept busy by its economic woes, China has boosted its influence across the region in recent years, signing a free trade agreement with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
India has tried to play catch-up, belatedly signing its own trade pact with the bloc.
Russia has meanwhile applied to join the East Asia Summit, this weekend's meeting which groups Asean with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
But next month US President Barack Obama will hold the first ever summit with Asean leaders, as well as attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Singapore.
Earlier this year US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the "US is back in Southeast Asia".
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said in an interview with the Bangkok Post published Monday that any future Asia-wide community "must engage" with the United States.
"We should see to what extent we can integrate them (the United States) into the East Asian Community," he said.
And while the big players jockey for position, Asean itself is trying to stay in the driving seat of any new grouping.
This is based on the fact that it already hosts the main annual meetings with the region's major powers, especially the East Asia Summit.
But Asian leaders did appear to agree at this weekend's summit that they need some new framework to hold together their diverse and sometimes fractious region.
A closer community would help Asia capitalise on its relatively quick recovery from the global economic crisis and to cut its dependence on the West to drive growth, they said.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in his closing remarks to the summit on Sunday that the "old growth model" in which Asia relies on consumption in the West "will no longer serve us as we move into the future."

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