12/14/2005, 00.00
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East Asian leaders agree to hold annual talks

ASEAN leaders want Japan, China and South Korea alongside to create an East Asian economic community. Russian President Putin attends ASEAN-Russia summit.  Koizumi of Japan and Wen of China shake hands.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews/Agencies) –East Asia's first summit ended today with an agreement to hold annual talks on strategic issues such as trade and security and a rare handshake between the leaders of Japan and China. The Kuala Lumpur summit has also started speculation that it might be the first step towards a huge pan-Asian free-trade area.

"We have all agreed that an East Asian community will be a reality in the future," Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

As Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo had previously intimated, this summit represents a crucial part of the region's "collective response to the dramatic changes taking place in the world."

It offers an opportunity to shape the East Asian region in ways that will best maintain its economic dynamism, improve regional security and preserve peace and stability among summit members.

The 16 countries—ASEAN's Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam; plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand—represent nearly half the world's population and a fifth of its trade.

"We have established the East Asia summit as a forum for dialogue on broad strategic, political and economic issues of common interest and concern with the aim of promoting peace, stability and economic prosperity in East Asia," the final declaration said.

For observers, it might be the first step towards the creation of a free-trade zone. But it faces several obstacles.

One major stumbling block is Sino-Japanese hostility and rivalry for regional leadership.

In fact, both China and South Korea have recently urged Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi to take a "just view" of history—referring to his visits the Yasukuni Temple which contains the remains of fallen Japanese soldiers, but also of war criminals.

Although Koizumi and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao shook hands, their two countries did not hold any bilateral talks.

Joining ASEAN might give China and Japan as well as South Korea an opportunity to meet without having bilateral meetings.

Another problem is the group's size and diversity—it includes the world's poorest country (Laos), one of its most repressive (Burma), alongside wealthy Australia and Japan. It would have to cope with another rivalry, that between Asia's two emerging giants—China and India—, and decide whether India, Australia and New Zealand can join outright or be associated somehow. Some view the latter's inclusion as a way to counter China's influence.

Malaysia, which opposes a US role, invited Russia, whose presence was welcomed by everybody. In a speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed Russia's desire to become an official ASEAN member.

The Kremlin wants to increase its economic and political ties with Asia, and for that purpose last Saturday signed an economic co-operation agreement with ASEAN

Russian Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko stated in November that one third of Russian oil exports will go to Asia by 2020. Currently, only 3 per cent does. (PB)

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“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”