Kuala Lumpur - The East Asia Summit (EAS), which its members hope will serve as a precursor to a pan-Asian community and trading area, was formally inaugurated on Dec 14. Despite initial fears that the 16-member EAS would be dominated by Asian powerhouses, China and India, the meeting ended with a general agreement that Asean should serve as the hub of the EAS.
"We agreed that Asean should play the role of the driver. The driving role of Asean as a hub will be very, very important for the success of the EAS," Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the summit's host, told a press conference at the end of the one-day meeting.
The summit saw the participation of the 10 Asean countries, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India. Mr Abdullah said that the leaders agreed that the EAS would be held annually on the margins of the Asean Summit.
The inaugural meeting saw the signing of the Kuala Lumpur Declaration, which stated that the EAS is a forum for dialogue on broad strategic, political and economic issues of common interest to promote peace, stability and economic prosperity.
The leaders hope that the grouping will boost interaction and cooperation in areas as diverse as fighting terrorism and bird flu, lowering trade barriers and energy supplies.
EAS, the declaration added, would be an open, inclusive, transparent and outward-looking forum in which members strive to strengthen global norms and universally recognised values.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said his country welcomed Asean in the driver's seat. "Asean is a safe driver to lead us to our destination," Mr Singh added.
Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said the EAS "symbolises that co-operation in East Asia has entered a new stage".
In an analysis on Asean's role in the EAS, The Straits Times' writer Ravi Velloor said Asean "needs to stay in the centre of the game not just because it is best positioned to play honest broker".
"It has to also ensure that it is the stuffing in the vast sandwich being created by the accelerating economic engagement between the biggest economies of the region - Japan, China, India and South Korea."
In an editorial, Thailand's The Nation said that in creating a new Asia, "Asean leaders are hamstrung by ambivalence".
"On the one hand, they are keen to further engagement with East Asia in the broader sense, including with India, Australia and New Zealand. On the other hand, they also fear that wider co-operation could usurp that which is currently confined to the Asean + 3 process - the 10 members of Asean plus China, Japan and South Korea."
The newspaper said Asean views community-building in East Asia as an Asean + 3 process that has nothing to do with what India and Australia have in mind. These two countries view the EAS as "an Asian G-8-type meeting, taking up specific themes or issues and extending invitations to other countries to attend as guests".
"As EAS host, Malaysia issued a cleverly-worded chairman's statement saying that the EAS should remain open and outward looking. But it does not touch on the future community-building in Asia - the common objective of all Asian countries," The Nation said.
* Asean in driver's seat of East Asia Summit (The Straits Times, Dec 15)
* East Asia Summit: New era of co-operation begins (New Straits Times, Dec 15)
* Newly-born EAS carries regional aspirations on its shoulders (Bernama, Dec 14)
* The expanding concept of Asia (The Nation, Dec 15)