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Asia bloc gets off ground

Kuala Lumpur, Dec. 14: Leaders of Asia’s 16 most powerful economies met here today to decide to work together towards an East Asian Community in which Asean will remain in the driver’s seat.

A formal meeting, where Russia, too, was present as a guest of the host country, was followed by a one-and-a-half-hour retreat where the more serious business of how to integrate the grouping on the lines of the European Union was discussed.

Members of the Indian delegation, who were with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the retreat, said later that top officials of the 16 countries had been mandated to meet and work out issues such as the financial architecture of the grouping and customs union.

It was decided that meetings would be held regularly, back to back with the Asean summit with the Asean chairperson also chairing the East Asia gathering. However, the “modalities”, diplomatese for rules, will be worked out by all members of the grouping.

Besides trade, investment, energy and financial issues, the meeting resolved it would from now on focus on “strategic dialogue and cooperation in political and security issues” and work together on disaster management.

“We discussed peace, economic progress, environment, energy security and cooperation in tackling infectious diseases,” the Prime Minister said.

The charter could well alarm the US as it has not been admitted into the grouping, while Russia is in the queue. Australia and New Zealand were allowed in “because of common interest, not geographic contiguity”, in the words of a Malaysian diplomat.

But demands made by the two countries that the US be invited are unlikely to be accepted unless it signs a treaty with Asean, agreeing to be a dialogue partner and to eschew force in the region, which all other members and Russia have initialled.

The meeting also decided that bilateral bickering would be eschewed and only multilateral issues taken up.

Although Asean will be in the driver’s seat in the building up of an East Asia Economic Community, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmed Badawi said after the meeting that India and China would remain important “as they have become global economic powers now”.

Singh’s Christmas gifts of promising to lower trade barriers, send generic drugs to combat bird flu and take part in regional maritime security helped. So did pledges to give $5 million to Asean’s poorest members ' Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar ' and to help develop “English language and communication skills” in the region.

The Malaysians had earlier not been very keen on letting India join the grouping.

Top Indian officials said most Asean nations were keen on New Delhi’s help to curb piracy and terror threats in the strait of Malacca as it is the only nation with a strong navy in the grouping.

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