East Asian leaders on Monday called for making concrete steps toward establishing a region-wide community modeled on the European Union. While much has been said in recent years about establishing such a body, there appears to be a renewed sense of urgency about the process.
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi spelled out a seven-step process that could take East Asia closer to its goal of becoming more unified in terms of politics, security and the economy.
At a forum in the Malaysian capital bringing together past and present Asian leaders, foreign ministers, and other regional decision makers, Mr. Abdullah said the time had come to get down to business. "The task before this forum is not to contemplate the East Asian Community as a theoretical construct," he said. "Your task is to identify what needs to be done in concrete terms to achieve an integrated East Asian region."
The advantages of closer economic cooperation among East Asian countries could be huge for members. A group encompassing the current 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, plus Japan, South Korea and China, would represent a market of more than two billion people, with a combined gross domestic product of nearly $7 trillion.
Mr. Abdullah says the process will formally start at the East Asia Summit meeting to be held in Malaysia next year, followed by the signing of an East Asian Community charter setting out the principles of the body.
Next would come the establishment of a free trade area and agreements on monetary and financial cooperation. Security issues would be enshrined in an East Asian Zone of Amity and Cooperation agreement. Then transportation and communications matters would be resolved, and finally countries would sign an East Asian Declaration of Human Rights.
But former South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung said several hurdles need to be overcome to realize such a close-knit community. "The second East Asia Forum should deliver the long-term vision of an East Asian community as well as address its impending challenges," said President Kim. "First, active cooperation should be pursued in political security. We must address the issue of universal spread of crime such as terrorism, narcotics, piracy and human trafficking."
While the dream of an Asian union is a tantalizing one for the region's leaders, differences in culture, religion and economic aspirations have stymied such efforts for years. For example, China and Japan have long been competitors for influence in the region.
Even among ASEAN countries, political and economic disputes continue. But the leaders here in Kuala Lumpur are taking the attitude that if post-war Europe could do it, so can Asia.