[OUTLOOK]Who and what is East Asian?

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[OUTLOOK]Who and what is East Asian?

For the first time in history, 16 East Asian heads of state came together. It was an event with historic significant, proving that the idea of an “East Asian community” was not an ambiguous, impracticable proposition but a realistic plan. At the same time, the problems with the plan have become clear. The contest for hegemony and rivalry among regional giants are a bigger obstacle than anything else. Despite their many disagreements, the regional leaders have agreed to hold the East Asia Summit every year. They also decided the basic direction of the “East Asian community” as to which countries will be included by 2007, the 10th anniversary of the ASEAN+3 Meeting ― the meeting of ASEAN countries and Korea, Japan and China. The intense diplomatic warfare over the regional structure of East Asia has begun.
The Kuala Lumpur Declaration of the East Asian Summit, issued on Dec. 15, states that “the East Asia Summit could play a significant role in community building in this region” and called ASEAN “the driving force.” The earlier declaration by the ASEAN+3 Summit defined the 13 members of the group as the “main vehicle” in pursuing an East Asian community.
In short, ASEAN, ASEAN+3 and the East Asian Summit form concentric circles around the concept of an East Asian community. The problem is that the relationship among the three circles is not yet clear. The ambiguous expressions on the structure might be a product of a tentative compromise on who will assume the leadership in the end.
A confrontational structure has clearly come into view. Regarding the formation of an East Asian community, China and Malaysia want to limit its membership to the ASEAN +3 states, while Japan and Indonesia wish to expand the boundary to include Australia, India and even the United States. Australia, India and New Zealand participated in the summit, a victory on the part of the “expansionists” led by Tokyo. Meanwhile, Beijing’s influence has limited the summit meeting to a supplementary role. Japan insisted on expansion in order to check China’s growing influence, while China stressed the ASEAN+3 framework in an attempt to exclude the United States. The growing rivalry between China and Japan is casting a dark shadow over the future of the East Asian community.
It is regrettable that Korea did not play a notable diplomatic role in the course of the summit. Since the Kim Dae-jung administration, Korean foreign policy has made significant contributions to the ASEAN+3 Meeting, which made the first move toward the concept of an East Asian community. Because of the North Korean nuclear issue, Seoul had to focus on the issue of regional cooperation in Northeast Asia.
However, the member countries of ASEAN are deeply concerned about a situation in which the competition between China and Japan and the behind-the-scenes intervention of the United States might hinder the establishment of an East Asian community. They reportedly expect Seoul to play a certain role in the process. Along with regional middleweights such as Thailand, Korea needs to conduct a comprehensive review of the systematic design of an East Asian community.
The first and the biggest framework for the community can be the virtual integration of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asian Summit. The ARF, which is currently limited to an assembly of foreign ministers, is considering expanding to include a meeting of defense ministers. By merging with the ARF, the East Asian Summit can expand as a political and security council to cover the United States and Russia as well. It might become an East Asian version of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Second, we have to work on expanding the agenda of ASEAN+3 to include social and political areas while maintaining its title. Currently, only ASEAN member countries can host the meeting, a restriction that also needs to be removed.
Thirdly, it is important to establish a permanent council comprising Korea, China and Japan. Despite the controversy over history, Korean diplomacy needs to prove its caliber and wisdom by reinforcing cooperation among the three nations, even at a level below the heads of state.

* The author is a professor of international relations at Rikkyo University in Japan. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Lee Jong-won
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