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East Asia Summit to Hold Inaugural Session

Representatives of 16 nations will gather in the Malaysian capital on December 14 for the first meeting of the East Asian Summit. The event brings the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations together with the giants of South Asia, East Asia and now the South Pacific. It underscores ASEAN's efforts to define its regional role, but analysts have questioned the overall purpose of the group.

The 10 ASEAN nations have a combined population of more than 500 million. They are searching for ways to deal with the growing economic power of their larger neighbors, two of whom alone, China and India, hold more than 2.3 billion people.

Ong Keng Yong, the ASEAN secretary general, says the East Asian summit will explore ways ASEAN can engage with its neighbors.

"This is the Asia growth period. How do the Asian countries engage each other? How do we organize a more predictable and stable way of engaging with each other?" he said.

Analysts say ASEAN's purpose goes beyond simple engagement, however. They see the mostly small Southeast Asian nations, with their relatively limited economic and military strength, searching for their proper role amid the likes of China, India, Japan, Australia and the United States.

Hiro Katsumata, an expert on ASEAN at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, says ASEAN will use the summit to try to define that role.

"The whole notion, the idea of this East Asian Summit, at least for ASEAN, the main purpose is to balance its interest, ASEAN's interest, regarding the external powers such as China, India, Japan, and so on," he explained.

Mr. Hiro says ASEAN does not want to be seen as too close to any country, but friendly to all.

"I think it's very strategic," he added. "Although ASEAN does not have any material power such as economic or security capabilities, but by maintaining good relations with each of the external powers, ASEAN will continue to exercise a certain influence over the region. ASEAN has already a good relationship with the U.S. So to do something without the U.S. is also a very, very strategic act for ASEAN."

The inclusion of Australia in the summit has prompted criticism from at least one prominent Southeast Asian, and has led some analysts to question what the summit's purpose is.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad originally conceived the summit in 1991 as a counterweight to U.S.-dominated forums - a place where Asians could get together by themselves to discuss problems and formulate policies.

On Wednesday, Mr. Mahathir lashed out at Australia's participation, calling the country "the deputy sheriff for America," and saying Canberra's views could well outweigh those of the smaller Southeast Asian nations.

However, Robert Broadfoot, of the Hong Kong-based firm Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, says Japan pushed for both Australia's and India's involvement, as a counterweight to the growing might of China.

"Now what it's trying to do in this meeting is stand up more to China, so that China doesn't drive the agenda of the group," said Mr. Broadfoot. "ASEAN's not going to drive the agenda, but it doesn't want China to drive the agenda. And because Japan is in somewhat weaker position because of legacy issues, it would very much like Australia at the table, and India."

Some analysts have noted the difference in world views between the Asians and the Westerners of Australia and New Zealand, and say it is difficult to see what purpose the summit might serve.

Australian officials themselves have said they see the summit as the possible nucleus of a future Asian free-trade community, to rival the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Mr. Broadfoot says countries in the region are searching for new groupings, and realignments of relationships based on modern realities instead of out-dated Cold War considerations.

"What you're seeing now is a gathering of a group of countries that are testing out what types of relationships are they most comfortable with," continued Mr. Broadfoot. "I think over the next 10 years, you're going to get a whole lot of new acronyms coming up, brand new groupings. Or you're going to get old acronyms like ASEAN being completely redefined from what they were before."

ASEAN groups Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. It will be joined at the summit by China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India.