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CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Last fall the embryonic concept of an Asian community appeared to gain some momentum. Now, of course, other topics, mainly the tragedy of the Dec. 26 tsunamis, have monopolized public attention, but the vision of a broader Asian community deserves further discussion.

Since the Asian community concept appears to have roots in the past, and as such is not a new initiative, I would like to offer a small historical insight that may not be known to everyone interested in this issue.

A widely known and most respected figure in Japan, the Rev. Neal Henry Lawrence, who passed away at the venerable age of 96 in November, reminded me just a few weeks before his death that he had originated a similar idea after World War II.

Father Neal, an American who achieved distinction in six different careers — as a businessman, a naval officer in Okinawa during the war, a diplomat, an academic, a poet and a Benedictine monk — was head of the U.S. Information Service in Singapore and Malaysia at the time that he conceived and promoted the idea of an All-Asian Conference, because “similar problems were confronting all of us in Asia.”

The U.S. State Department approved the idea, and the first conference took place in Singapore. The initiative proved a success and such meetings continued annually for some time.

Apparently, Neal was reminiscing about this just before he died, as he was trying to put together some useful data for future historians. In his last communication to me, he wrote that there was a relevant State Department report that he wanted to locate. At this point in the e-mail, though, the prior of the Benedictine monastery in Fujimi where Neal spent his last years — in the serenity of the Japan Alps — added a note that Neal “cannot finish this e-mail at the moment as he took a fall last night. . . . He will be in the hospital.”

Fate dictated that this accident would lead to his death, so we are deprived of further information on a historic precursor to the Asian community initiative.

As for the initiative itself, I would like to consider two points: the suggestion that the community “excludes” the United States and the cultural dimension of the undertaking.

An article in the prestigious Economist magazine has underscored the fact that the repackaging of the older Malaysian East Asian Economic Caucus idea is “a new form of Asian summitry that excludes America.” After a series of reservations, the writer concluded that “the new club will give China an unrivaled chance to shine.”

The view from the Asian side is rather different. In a recent keynote address, Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai stated: “I envisage an Asian community that is not an exclusive community but one that is inclusive, and working not only toward its own prosperity but also to promote global prosperity.”

Of course, this notion must be tested on the ground, but it seems sound in this initial framework. Indeed, it looks rather improbable that 3 billion people, or half the world’s population, when integrated under this concept, could draw a line and live in isolation from the rest of the planet.

The second point brings us to Asian cultural diversity, which, in my mind, must gain dominance over more practical considerations of economic integration or even security prerequisites. Although the latter are legitimate concerns, their targets cannot be fully implemented and brought to fruition until the cultural parameters are laid out first.

We do not just mean classical cultural exchanges, but a broader understanding of the spectrum of values, traditions and customs permeating each Asian nation. In this, I concur with the Thai foreign minister who stated: “I envisage an Asian community that utilizes the pool of its human and natural resources for the region’s wealth and prosperity. I envisage the diversity of Asia’s cultural heritage underpinning our inner strength.”

We should bear in mind that the embryonic idea of the Asian community should not be considered merely in theoretical isolation, but also in the context of and in conjunction with the ongoing process of an “Asia Pacific Civilization.” We may be at the dawn of such a phenomenon.

As professor Sakamoto Kazuichi, former president of the Asia Pacific University in Oita, put it, there will be a “fusion” of Western and Asian civilizations, a new civilization “that is neither Oriental nor Occidental,” with three main pillars at its core: conservation of the global environment, preservation of peace and eradication of poverty.

In the final analysis, if we want to move from concepts to reality, “we cannot wait for the Asia Pacific civilization to arrive; we must consciously create it.”

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