Delegates from across Asia are gathering in Laos for meetings with the foreign ministers of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Among the many topics being discussed is an East Asia summit later this year.

Foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, have formalized a proposal for a summit meeting of East Asian nations in Malaysia later this year.

Lao Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavad, said that ASEAN ministers decided to include several neighbors in the summit.

"The meeting has decided to invite India, New Zealand and Australia to attend the first East Asia Summit."

In order to be invited, governments must sign a non-aggression treaty with ASEAN. India did so two years ago, and New Zealand is to sign the friendship treaty this week.

Australia's government, which initially balked at such a treaty, says it will seek parliamentary approval to sign the accord this year.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer Wednesday said the summit could play an important role in building an East Asian community.

"It is important to be in this process right from the beginning, because being there at the beginning means we can have influence on the character of the process," said Mr. Downer.

In addition, ASEAN is negotiating free trade agreements with Japan, South Korea and China, part of a broad process called ASEAN +3. It has also begun preliminary free trade talks with India, Australia and New Zealand.

An East Asia economic union would create a common market of more than two billion people with a combined gross national product of several trillion dollars.

But some observers question whether a broad East Asia summit would distract attention from the ASEAN + 3 process.

Thai Foreign Ministry Spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow says that unlike the structured process that is ASEAN + 3, the East Asia summit, or EAS, would be an informal gathering.

"This EAS is a forum, where you come and you talk about issues impacting upon the region, on the international community as a whole, exchange views and see where we can coordinate policies," said Mr. Sihasak.

He compares the EAS to the Asia Regional Forum, due to meet in Laos Friday, which provides a venue for discussion of security issues such as international terrorism and transnational crime.