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Commonwealth Offers Bright Future for E Asia
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By Zhai Kun

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit concluded in the central Philippine city of Cebu on Saturday. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao took part in the meeting of 10+1 between ASEAN and China Sunday. He is also scheduled to attend the 10+3 leaders' conference with the ASEAN 10 plus China, Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK), the China-Japan-ROK summit and the second East Asia Summit. The premier will also pay an official visit to the Philippines.

Cooperation between East Asian countries offers a driving force for building regional harmony. The cooperation, in turn, needs an equitable division of work among the players. Fortunately, the framework of East Asian cooperation has clearly emerged and the roles of various countries are clearly defined after a decade of probing and exploration.

ASEAN will remain the captain of the ship of East Asian cooperation for a long time to come, charting its orientation, steering its course and coordinating the relations of various participants on board.

This is dictated by the particular conditions in East Asia and ASEAN's special role.

The complex and intertwined relations among the countries in the region and the sharp contradictions determine that no single East Asian major power is able to preside over East Asian cooperation. Only ASEAN, which is "no potential rival for any big power", in the words of Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo, can be the leading player acceptable to all the big powers.

ASEAN has acquired rich experience in regional cooperation since its founding 40 years ago.

In promoting East Asian cooperation, ASEAN has always stuck to the principle that all parties concerned enjoy a certain degree of comfort and significant leeway, in an effort to adapt to the area's political and economic diversity.

Newcomers on the scene, such as India, Australia and New Zealand, also need orchestrating efforts from ASEAN, which includes Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Brunei.

In the face of challenging tasks, the best way for ASEAN to maintain its leading role in East Asian cooperation is to consolidate its own integration and promote the strength of the organization as a whole.

It is out of this consideration that the Philippines has proposed that an ASEAN commonwealth, covering security, economics and culture, be formed by 2015, five years ahead of schedule.

ASEAN originally formulated that three combinations of "10+1" cooperation ASEAN + China, ASEAN + Japan, and ASEAN + ROK form the future East Asian commonwealth.

Ten years have passed but gaps have emerged in the progress made by the three "10+1" groups.

The ASEAN-China 10+1 is the most successful among the three, vigorously moving ahead with regional cooperation. For example, negotiations on the China-ASEAN free trade area are making big headway. After completing negotiations on the opening of service, the two parties have moved forward to talks on investment.

China-ASEAN cooperation is spurring on East Asian cooperation in two respects.

First, China is the first non-ASEAN country to support ASEAN in its leading role in East Asian cooperation. Second, the progress in China-ASEAN relations serves as a stimulant pushing Japan and the ROK to speed up negotiations with ASEAN on establishing their free trade areas.

It is unimaginable that East Asian cooperation could make any significant progress without ASEAN playing a vital role. It is equally unimaginable, that East Asian cooperation could lead anywhere without cooperation from China, Japan and the ROK.

The relatively mature mechanism of 10+3 constitutes the bedrock for the construction of the East Asian commonwealth. The East Asia Summit, now in its second year, is obviously still finding its way and therefore is the secondary channel.

The leaders of the countries in this region are clear about this, deciding at the first East Asia Summit in 2005 that the "10+3" framework will be the primary means for eventually forging the East Asia commonwealth.

As for this year's 10+3 summit, Cui Tiankai, China's assistant foreign minister, said that the Chinese will put forward new suggestions on promoting East Asian cooperation. Seizing the opportunity of the 10th anniversary of 10+3 cooperation, China will push for strategic planning for the future and consolidation of the 10+3's leading role in promoting East Asian cooperation and bringing about the East Asia commonwealth.

This best illustrates China's role in 10+3 cooperation.

Leaders of the 16 countries attending the East Asia Summit in 2005 (Australia, New Zealand and India in addition to the 10+3) signed the Kuala Lumpur Declaration, declaring that the East Asia Summit, with ASEAN as the primary driving force, was a vital part of the regional framework and that progress had been made in East Asian integration through the 10+3 and 10+1 mechanisms.

Together with 10+3 and 10+1 cooperation, the East Asia Summit will play a very important part in promoting East Asian integration.

This year's East Asia Summit will concentrate on the issue of energy security. This approach, focusing on specific issues, is expected to yield substantial fruit.

Cui said on the eve of the current summit: "The East Asia Summit is the outcome of the deepening cooperation among East Asian countries and it indicates that a new platform for East Asian cooperation has been constructed. The Chinese government will try to assure that the summit remains outward looking, open and tolerant."

The author is a researcher with the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.

(China Daily January 15, 2007)

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