Leaders of 16 nations from India to New Zealand inaugurated a new forum Wednesday in ambitious efforts to chart a pan-Asian community, a distant goal given rivalries festering among powers such as China and Japan. The first East Asia Summit was the culmination of three days of meetings among the region's leaders in Malaysia's main city, Kuala Lumpur, hosted by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
"It was very historic," Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo told reporters after the 3 1/2-hour summit, noting that the group represents half the world's population and a third of its trade and income. "The combined political will can do much to address issues that are of great interest to the region," she said.
The 10 ASEAN leaders joined with counterparts from Japan, China, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Russia attended as an observer, but there was no decision on its aspirations to be a full member.
The leaders pledged to cooperate in fighting bird flu, discuss security issues and meet every year, as sought by India. India also is pushing for strong European-style integration aiming for a regionwide free trade area. However, no concrete action was taken toward that end.
A summit statement said merely that the group "could play a significant role in community-building in the region" but stressed its efforts wouldn't conflict with World Trade Organization talks on global free trade, currently under way in Hong Kong.
"The East Asia Summit has just begun," Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told other leaders. "It should evolve into an opportunity for tackling concrete issues, not for just talk," he was quoted as saying by a Japanese diplomat.
The Malaysia host, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, said the leaders agreed that an "East Asia Community will be a reality in future as cooperation becomes stronger."
The conference in Kuala Lumpur was soured by a feud between China and Japan over Koizumi's visits in recent years to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, which honors war criminals along with the nation's 2.5 million war dead.
China and South Korea declined to hold one-on-one meetings with Japan during the summit. Both countries feel that Japan has not fully atoned for its brutal World War II past. China's Premier Wen Jiabao said the visits hurt the feelings of Chinese people, and Asians in general.
Koizumi said the visits express his remorse, and that he was baffled about why Wen would refuse to meet. "This is a spiritual question," Koizumi told reporters after the summit. "I just don't understand why anyone should be criticized for offering prayers."
Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa said continued tensions "would be inconsistent with the launching of an East Asian Community."
"Our hope has been that the two countries can find a way out of this situation," he said. ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Ralph A. Cossa, head of Pacific Forum CSIS in Hawaii, said it was challenging enough to tighten cooperation among the 10 ASEAN countries, which range from impoverished, communist Laos to the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei.
"Developing a lowest common denominator for security cooperation among these ten diverse nations is difficult enough; imagine adding China, Japan, and South Korea who refuse to even hold a side meeting in Kuala Lumpur, much less the others, to the mix?" Cossa wrote in an analysis of the summit, reports the AP. I.L.