East Asian Summit Marked by Discord

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 14, 2005

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Dec. 14 -- Sixteen Asian leaders held a groundbreaking summit Wednesday designed to promote regional economic and security cooperation outside the traditional umbrella of U.S. military power and political leadership.

The first East Asian Summit embraced nations from Australia to Indonesia. In part because of the diversity, however, it began life with an uncertain future, Asian diplomats acknowledged. Although the leaders pledged to make it an annual get-together, regional disputes and wariness about China's emerging power made them cautious about what role the new group will play.

The summit was originally designed to transform East Asia's diplomatic architecture, an Indonesian diplomat remarked, but ended up in "creative ambiguity" to mask discord about where it is headed.

As proposed by Malaysia and championed by China, the summit was conceived as a way for the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to cooperate with China, Japan and South Korea -- but not the United States -- on security, social and economic problems. Many officials viewed it as a vehicle for Chinese leadership, making China the motor of an Asian bloc with a voice distinct from that of other Asia-Pacific groupings that include the United States.

A senior Chinese official said one goal was to begin a gradual realignment between Asian nations, particularly China, and the overwhelming military and political role played by the United States in Asia since World War II. While China has no desire to contest the strong U.S. presence in Asia, he said, the time has come to consider a greater role for Asia's own governments, and China in particular.

But over the last several months, chances that the East Asian Summit could result in a new, China-led community have dimmed drastically. As a result, Asian and other diplomats said, U.S. concerns about being frozen out of the process have dimmed as well; the Bush administration did not send observers to the inaugural session.

China's relations with Japan, meanwhile, have become increasingly tense, inflamed by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to a shrine honoring Japanese war dead and rival claims to petroleum deposits and islands in the East China Sea. Because of the disputes, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao refused to hold a traditional three-way meeting planned for this week among China, Japan and South Korea.

With Asia's two main powers thus at loggerheads, it was difficult to celebrate a new regional cooperation forum, officials said. In addition, leaders gathered here stepped around their usual insistence on noninterference and warned Burma that it must make speedier progress on human rights and steps toward democracy.

In negotiations leading up to the summit, Japan, Singapore and Indonesia fought hard to broaden the membership to include Australia, New Zealand and India. While making the new group more representative of Asia's broad geographical sweep, the additions also diluted Chinese influence and gave greater voice to governments closely aligned with the United States.

"Through the Australians, and the Japanese, too, I suppose, the Americans get their message across, but not in a heavy-handed way," said Marty Natalegawa, spokesman for the Indonesian Foreign Ministry.

As a result, China's enthusiasm for the new grouping sank fast. After first working to keep out the United States, its diplomats more recently have suggested that anyone with interests in the Pacific -- Russia, perhaps, or even the United States -- could eventually take part, which would dilute the group further still.

"The whole process is open," said Cui Tiankai, who heads the Asian affairs department at the Chinese Foreign Ministry. "Now we have 16 countries, but next year we could have 17 or 18."

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