Asia leaders press free trade, US role uncertain

Asia leaders press free trade, US role uncertain

Thailand: Japanese and Chinese leaders entered talks on Saturday with their Asian counterparts focused heavily on whether the region should pursue an EU-style bloc, and whether Washington should be involved.

Japan is stressing that Washington is important to its idea of forming an East Asian Community when, as Japanese officials pitch the concept at a summit of 16 Asia-Pacific leaders in the Thai resort town of Hua Hin, a top government official said.

“The US involvement will be very important," Japan’s deputy chief cabinet secretary Yorihisa Matsuno told reporters on a flight to Thailand, referring to what prime minister Yukio Hatoyama plans to tell his Asian counterparts at the meetings.

Hatoyama plans to stress that the US-Japan alliance would remain the foundation of Tokyo’s diplomacy, Matsuno said.

The talks are part of a three-day leaders summit which got off to a rancorous start on Friday, marred by diplomatic tension, a budding trade feud and a few no-shows in the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean).

That bloc meets on Saturday with China, Japan and South Korea in an “Asean+3" forum that gives Asia’s economic titans, China and Japan, a chance to jockey for influence over trade agreements and investment opportunities in Southeast Asia, a region of 570 million people with a combined $1.1 trillion economy.

Japan’s newly minted government sees its influence bound to an East Asian Community, an idea for a new regional trading bloc inspired by the European Union and including India, Australia and New Zealand, along with ASEAN countries.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd plans to push another idea at the summit centred around a new forum of Asia-Pacific nations and the United States for dealing with economic, security, environmental and political crises, according to Australian media.

Washington has expressed concern over being excluded from such groupings, especially as Japan’s new leaders vow to steer a diplomatic course less dependant on its closest security ally, while seeking to deepen ties with Asian neighbours.

US assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell told reporters in Beijing this month that “critical dialogues that touch on security, economic, and commercial issues should involve the United States".

Uncertain US role

Accounting for nearly a quarter of global economic output, an East Asian Community could overtake Asean’s existing trade ties with Japan, China and South Korea, but would also compete with the “Group of 20", which anointed itself last month as the pre-eminent forum for global economic coordination.

Exactly how Washington would participate is uncertain.

Asked if US involvement meant Washington will be a member of the Community, a Japanese government official told reporters in Thailand on Saturday: “It remains unclear. We have to see how multilateral meetings will turn out today."

In Tokyo, the move is seen as an attempt by Japan to ease growing worries about friction over the long-planned reorganisation of the US military presence in Japan, the first big test of ties between Washington and Japan’s month-old government.

China has been cool to the idea of a community, wary it could promote Japanese influence at a time Beijing is rapidly expanding trade, investment and diplomatic links across Southeast Asia — from building sleek new government offices in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh to working closely with reclusive Myanmar.

“China wants to establish healthy relations with the new government in Japan, so it is not going to object to discussing this idea," said Shi Yinhong, a regional security professor at Beijing’s Renmin University.

“But everybody understands the idea of an East Asia Community is extremely far off," he added.

Leaders from across Asia arrived at the beach resort under a blanket of security, including a security force of 18,000 backed by a handful of military gunships, with host Thailand determined to avoid a rerun of embarrassing mishaps at past summits.

The summit was initially scheduled for December last year but was postponed when anti-government protestors shut down Bangkok’s airports. It was moved to the Thai resort area of Pattaya in April but was subsequently aborted when a rival protest group broke through police and army lines and stormed the summit venue.