Australia would never be truly part of Asia, Malaysia said even as Prime Minister John Howard joined other regional leaders to begin forging a pan-Asian community to rival Europe.At the first-ever East Asia Summit (EAS), Mr Howard led a lone campaign for Washington to have a central place in any trade bloc and argued that APEC, with US membership, be regarded as the region's premier forum.Later Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said Australia would never be a real Asian insider.
It would, though, be invited to future East Asian summits."If you are talking about a community of East Asians, I don't know how the Australians would regard themselves as East Asians, or the New Zealanders for that matter," he said."But we are not talking about being members of the community, we are talking about common interests."
Wednesday's inaugural summit in Malaysia gathered the 10 Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China and South Korea.Mr Howard took centre-stage as leaders signed off on a declaration agreeing to meet each year, sitting next to Mr Abdullah as the members of Asia's newest diplomatic club rose to shake hands.
Breaking the meeting's harmony, Malaysian police clashed outside with a small band of Burmese pro-democracy protesters, bundling them into vans after they demanded tougher action against Burma's ruling generals.
Inside Mr Abdullah confirmed Australia and New Zealand would be second-class participants in Asia's vision, with a rival meeting of the 10 South East Asia leaders with China, Japan and Korea - called "ASEAN Plus Three" - to be the "driver" of integration.But that did not mean Canberra and Wellington did not have common interests with Asian economies.
"We want to see peace, stability, prosperity, and our friends are willing to contribute through such forums like the EAS, then certainly they will be welcome," Mr Abdullah said.
The ASEAN Plus Three push - led by Malaysia and China - dashed hopes by India, Indonesia and Singapore for the new summit to eventually absorb smaller ones. Mr Abdullah said Russia wanted to attend next year's meeting in the Philippines.
But in a clash of visions heading into the round-table retreat, Mr Howard argued the even larger Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which includes the US, should remain the region's top economic grouping.
"Who can deny the importance of the security role of the United States in this region? But we can have different manifestations," he said.
APEC, which includes the US, Russia and several Latin American countries, should be the building block for Asia as Australia prepared to chair the 21-nation group in 2007, Mr Howard said, reports the Age. I.L.