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June 9, 2000 VOL. 29 NO. 22 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Editorial: Coming Together
Despite inherent differences, East Asia is moving toward community

It has arrived, that political entity with no name. One could call it the East Asian Community. Or something Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad floated a decade ago: the East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC). Heaven forbid that it be named the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, even though Japan's participation is essential to its success. At the moment, its favored designation seems to be that bureaucratic clunker coined by diplomats - ASEAN Plus 3. That means the ten countries that make up the Southeast Asian grouping, plus China, Japan and South Korea.

Whatever it may be called, a community of East Asian nations is quietly taking shape, despite the participants' obvious and substantial differences. And it is jelling faster than most people even in the region realize. These days, representatives of China, Japan and South Korea attend all ASEAN summits and ministerial meetings. They were especially prominent at the association's last two summits, held in Hanoi and Manila. But their presence is felt even at relatively obscure economic gatherings, such as those in Chiang Mai and Yangon recently. In particular, the embryonic East Asian community is becoming more important and practically viable just when the more diffuse Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum is looking ever more cumbersome and ineffectual.

It is just as well that no one is loudly proclaiming the birth of a new group. Memories remain of Washington's vigorously negative reaction to Mahathir's EAEC proposal, which in turn made Tokyo nervous about participating. And without Japan's active involvement, greater East Asian cohesion, not to mention co-prosperity, would be heavily handicapped. At this stage, ASEAN Plus 3 will be able to achieve more by staying low-key and informal.

Much has changed in East Asia over the past decade. The proliferation of ministerial conferences has got the region used to multilateral dialogues. The Crisis taught Asian countries that they need to seek ways to help themselves amid emergencies, rather than rely exclusively on outside parties with their own agendas. Another factor has been the sustained momentum of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) on security issues. And the rapprochement between China and South Korea has helped temper Cold War tensions in Northeast Asia. North Korea's recent diplomatic initiatives and the historic Korean summit this month suggest that Pyongyang, too, may be ready to join the East Asian community. The North has signaled its desire to participate in ARF. An economic lightweight, Pyongyang is nonetheless a key element in any consideration of security in East Asia.

Also essential is the involvement of the region's colossus, China. One positive development of recent years is how Beijing has been gradually drawn into the security dialogue, largely through the offices of the ASEAN Regional Forum. Although many Asian countries wish to keep military links with the United States, it would be a mistake for them to do so while excluding China. And if the rapprochement between North and South Korea reaches a point where Seoul asks the Americans to withdraw their troops from the Korean peninsula, a new regional security umbrella may be necessary. ASEAN Plus 3 could be the core of that vehicle.

Yet even as the broader community is coalescing, ASEAN itself seems to be drifting apart. Manila is angry at the Malaysians for what it sees as meddling in its internal affairs in the long hostage crisis in southern Philippines. Given that the Abu Sayyaf group is holding several Malaysian hostages, Kuala Lumpur sees no wrong in sending its ambassador to deal with the kidnappers (without bothering to get approval from Manila). Malaysia's ties with Singapore are strained by water-supply problems and a dispute over the location of a railway border post. Bangkok is irritated by Myanmar's failure to resolve concerns about drug trafficking and refugees.

One difficulty is that ASEAN has outgrown its five core members - Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore - to include Brunei, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. The expansion naturally magnifies the chances of friction. The basic differences are greater among the members, which now include well-off countries such as Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia as well as poorer ones like Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos. And democracies are in bed with communist and military regimes, such as Vietnam and Myanmar.

ASEAN's drift may stem also from the absence of a distinctive leader within the grouping. Mahathir's experience and seniority would make him the natural candidate - except his penchant for controversy and his harsh treatment of former deputy Anwar Ibrahim make the neighbors uneasy. Indonesia's President Abdurrahman Wahid is too embroiled in his country's array of daunting problems to provide much regional leadership. And Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai is too domestically focused to fill that role.

So East Asia is in a curious, perhaps transitional, phase. Both ASEAN and APEC are losing focus. The latter, in particular, is fulfilling predictions made when it was proposed about a decade ago that it would be too big and too spread out to be anything more than a glamorous talking shop. ASEAN has always made sense geographically, and will likely outgrow its current difficulties. Meanwhile, moving up fast as the latest expression of East Asia's interests is ASEAN Plus 3. For a long time to come, that will be the grouping to watch.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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