India used the occasion of the fourth East Asia Summit here on Sunday to wade into the debate on Asian integration, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calling for an Asian Regional Trade agreement as a pivotal step towards the integration of the region into a broader “Asian Economic Community.”

Competing proposals

Though India first floated the concept of an AEC in 2005, the current debates in the region revolve around competing proposals by Tokyo and Canberra, and, of course, Asean, which sees itself as the driving force behind regional integration. In deference to this debate, the EAS Chairman’s statement issued here at the end of the one-day summit “noted with appreciation” Japan’s idea of an East Asian Community “based on the principle of openness, transparency and inclusiveness and functional cooperation,” Australia’s proposal on an Asia Pacific Community, and also Philippines’s proposal for an eventual “economic community of Asia.”

The EAS brings together the ten countries of the Association of South-East Asian Nations and its six dialogue partners, namely China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

U.S. seeks role

The United States is not included and no EAS member has solicited its views, though a senior Obama administration, Kurt Campbell, recently made a strong and somewhat aggressive pitch for Washington to be involved in the dialogue on the future of Asia. “There will be important architectural innovations in Asia … I just want to assure you though, the U.S. is going to be part of this party. We are an active player and we’re going to want an invitation as well,” he said.

In a statement to the EAS leaders’ retreat session, Dr. Singh described the launching of the EAS process in 2005 as “an act of foresight” because the world’s eyes were now focused on Asia as the region which can lead the global economic revival from the front. With the world still struggling to recover from the recession triggered by the global financial crisis, Dr. Singh said there was a broad consensus among EAS members that ongoing stimulus packages “should not be withdrawn or phased out prematurely.” He said there were three lessons the global economic crisis held out for the region. First, that growth policies should be coordinated, second that the real economy be kept strong on the basis of domestic demand, and third that the flows of trade, technology and investment be kept open, orderly and predictable.

The Prime Minister said India, which wants the EAS process to evolve in an “open, inclusive, transparent and outward looking” manner, welcomed the recommendations made recently on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia. “An early realisation of its roadmap for economic and financial integration,” he said, “would be the right step for our grouping.”

Speaking to reporters later, Dr. Singh said that with nearly half the world’s trade conducted in the framework of various regional arrangements, India had no option but to take advantage of them. Responding to a query about the adverse impact on the trade balance of the free trade agreement with Thailand, the Prime Minister said that “these temporary imbalances should not blind us to the longer term vision that India’s destiny lies in close integration with the countries of South East Asia.”