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Trade, Security Dominate First East Asian Summit

Trade and security issues dominated talks during the first East Asia Summit. Summit in Kuala Lumpur has brought together Asian and Pacific nations stretching from India to New Zealand.

The summit participants agreed Wednesday to hold annual talks aimed at creating a new region-wide free trade area.

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the host, called the East Asia Summit, or EAS, a success.

"The EAS meeting was successful in every aspect," said Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. "From the point of view of relationship, from the point of view of discussion, from the point of view of common understanding and common interest."

But experts point out problems and obstacles, including rivalries and cultural clashes between member countries, remain to be resolved before or even if a regional free trade area can become a reality.

Three separate but overlapping summits were held in Kuala Lumpur this week. The first was of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. The second was the so-called ASEAN Plus Three, which groups ASEAN with Japan, China and South Korea.

The East Asia Summit meeting, which was held Wednesday, adds India, Australia and New Zealand to ASEAN Plus Three. Russia sat in as an observer and is pushing for full membership, but the participants did not reach a consensus on Russia's bid.

ASEAN leaders expressed concern before this week that the larger East Asia Summit might push ASEAN aside, and Prime Minister Abdullah's remarks reflected that concern.

He said the assembled leaders had agreed that the East Asia Summit would play only a "complementary" role, while ASEAN Plus Three would remain "the key driver" towards regional economic integration.

Still, Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Marty Natalagawa says the East Asia Summit's significance cannot be ignored.

"It's significant," said Marty Natalagawa. "It brings together basically about half the world's population. About a third of the world trade is actually comprising these countries and not only the world trade but a substantial portion of the world's GNP."

The continuing row between Japan and China also came to the forefront during the three days of meetings.

China and South Korea, both occupied by Japan during the 20th century, refused a one-on-one meeting with Japan. They object to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's controversial visits to a Tokyo war shrine that honors convicted war criminals along with Japan's other war dead.

ASEAN itself, which has been criticized in the past for being long on talk but short on action, abandoned its usual policy of non-interference and soundly rebuked member-state Burma for its lack of democratic reform. It also called on Burma to release all political prisoners, including democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.

ASEAN includes Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and the Philippines, Thailand Brunei and Burma.