The East Asia Summit at Hua Hin in Thailand brought into focus the much-discussed proposal to convert the loose grouping into an East Asian Community (EAC) over the next two or three years. Both Japan and Australia have put forward their vision of this community, with some basic differences in perception. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is the core of the East Asian gathering, has over the past four decades grown, matured, and created new vehicles to spread its sphere of influence. The grouping, which now encompasses all the 10 countries in South East Asia, has set up a dialogue partnership with all the major powers. It went on to create a platform for ASEAN+3, an annual dialogue with China, Japan, and South Korea. Out of that came the East Asia Summit that brought in three more partners — India, Australia, and New Zealand. The proposal to form an EAC has obviously been inspired by the European Union, which has taken so much longer to evolve and consolidate, and is perhaps yet to iron out some basic differences. The ASEAN, which operates on the basis of consensus, naturally wants to be in the driver’s seat of the proposed EAC. Two fundamental questions need to be addressed before the proposal could take shape — whom should it include, and should the United States have a role in it.
From the beginning, there appear to be major differences on both these points. One approach seems to be to start with the ASEAN+3 platform and then expand, when the stage is set. India naturally feels that there can be no Asian community without it. New Delhi may have ASEAN’s full support in this. As Australia has come out with a proposal, it will not want to be left out of any major regional initiative that will account for half of the world’s population and a bulk of its trade. The U.S., which is out of the East Asia Summit, surely wants to be a part of the EAC. But the problem is that it is not part of the region. There may be many opponents to Washington integrating itself with an Asian community, although the U.S. does have some supporters within ASEAN. Possibly, it may have little opposition to its getting the status of an invitee or a dialogue partner. Without rushing into another EU-like experiment, the Asian countries will do well to deliberate extensively and build a consensus before taking the plunge. Issues such as a common currency are bound to crop up in this search for a common identity or platform. Without getting confused with the concept of the Asia-Pacific forum (APEC), the EAC must build its own regional architecture and framework, looking at economic, social, and security issues.