The concept of an East Asian Community — a broad regional grouping that would bring together countries in East Asia and other areas in economic, political, security and other fields of common interest — took a formal step toward realization last Wednesday at a summit meeting in Kuala Lumpur. Leaders of 13 countries — the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plus Japan, China and South Korea — signed a declaration calling for joint efforts to create such a community. Participants at this first East Asian Summit, which was attended by India, Australia and New Zealand, also signed a separate document stating that the summit should play a major role in forging the community.

However, the half-day meeting put off discussing the details of carrying out this project, such as how the East Asian Community should be developed and what countries should become its members. ASEAN and Japan, China and South Korea — the so-called ASEAN-Plus-Three — agreed to issue a second joint statement on East Asian cooperation in 2007, spelling out the future direction of the community.

Given the inexorable dynamics of globalization, achieving peace and prosperity through regional integration is a defining trend of the 21st century. East Asia is now beginning to follow in the footsteps of pace-setting regions: Europe, which created the European Union 12 years ago, and the Americas, which maintain the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Asia already has two major groupings of its own: The Asia-Pacific Economic Conference and the Asia-Europe Meeting. Moreover, countries in Asia have concluded, or are trying to conclude, multilateral or bilateral free-trade agreements. In these circumstances, it seems inevitable that this region move toward creating an East Asian Community.

East Asia, with a population of about 3 billion and a gross domestic product of some $9 trillion, is a huge economic zone comparable to the European Union and the NAFTA area. In 2003, intraregional trade made up 53 percent of East Asia’s total — a number approaching the EU’s 60 percent and exceeding the figure for NAFTA. Moreover, ASEAN-Plus-Three already has 49 consultative bodies in 17 different fields.

Nevertheless, creating an East Asian Community will not be easy compared with building the EU, which has, by and large, followed a steady process of integration. East Asia, richer in diversity, is beset by wide economic disparities. People in the region believe in various religions, and political systems range widely from liberal democracy to socialism.

Japan and China, still smarting from old war wounds, are locked in a struggle for leadership in the planned community. Political relations between the two nations have deteriorated markedly due largely to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including 14 convicted Class-A criminals of World War II.

In Kuala Lumpur, China, in an attempt to gain the leadership position, sought to create the East Asian Community around ASEAN-Plus-Three. Japan, trying to rein in a rising China, maintained that a wider East Asian Summit, including countries outside the region such as India and Australia, should take the initiative in launching the community.

The two sides parted with a compromise agreement: ASEAN-Plus-Three should play the lead role in creating the community, while the East Asian Summit takes a complementary part. A continued face-off between Japan and China, which should form the core of the community, will seriously undermine efforts to establish the group.

The United States, which wields great influence in Asia, was conspicuously absent from the summit. Its exclusion from an East Asian Community is likely to have complex effects on the organization and operation of the community. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad once called for the creation of a similar group — an East Asia Economic Conference — but the proposal fell through amid U.S. objections. The U.S. has taken a wait-and-see attitude this time around, yet the question of how to treat America remains, given its strong influence on Asian security.

Japan, whose population is aging rapidly, is likely to find it difficult to enjoy the kind of economic power that it has maintained in the past. About a century ago, Okakura Tenshin, the prominent artist and philosopher who helped introduce the East to the West, said famously that “Asia is one.” The task for this nation is to strive from a long-term perspective to create a community that promotes peace and prosperity in the region.

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