Mon, 15 Dec 2003

Experts give thumbs-down to East Asian Community

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Experts gave a thumbs-down over the weekend to the proposed East Asian Community (EAC), saying that the existence of such a community would create tension in the region.

Citing the wide economic gap and different political alliances among member countries, they stressed that the establishment of such a huge community required thorough studies.

"The existence of many unresolved problems within ASEAN and the absence of a common perception over the goals of the community will likely create tension among member countries," Bantarto Bandoro of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said on Saturday.

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Japan agreed on Friday to work towards the establishment of the so-called East Asian Community in order to boost prosperity and security in the region. The community would also include China and South Korea.

According to Bantarto, ASEAN should first develop itself into a strong community to ensure that they would become the driving force of the EAC, instead of being lorded over by stronger countries in the region.

Another foreign policy analyst, Soedjati Djiwandono, concurred with Bantarto, saying that it would be too confusing to implement the concept.

"We still do not know yet what to do to strengthen cooperation among ASEAN countries and turn it into a real community, and then we already agreed to establish a bigger community," Soedjati said.

He said that a community required greater understanding and a common pace between member countries in both political and economic development.

Among the 10 ASEAN members, only Malaysia and Singapore have achieved strong economic foundations, while the rest are struggling to develop.

"We cannot even have a similar pace of economic growth among ASEAN members, how much more with Japan, China and South Korea," Soedjati said.

Bantarto said there were many other urgent problems that ASEAN should address first before establishing a new community. Those included the concept of an ASEAN Security Community, which was agreed upon in the ASEAN Summit in Bali in early October 2003.

"Some ASEAN countries have reservations with the ASEAN Security Community concept and we already jumped into another set of new community concepts," he said.

"ASEAN should put their house in order first before joining the East Asia Community," he stressed.

The agreement on the establishment of the East Asian Community was signed by heads of state of ASEAN members and Japan on the last day of two-day ASEAN-Japan commemorative summit in Tokyo, Japan on Friday.

Cochaired by President Megawati Soekarnoputri as chairwoman of ASEAN and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the summit ended with the conclusion that the community was needed to enhance prosperity and security in the region.

Not all ASEAN leaders, however, gave unreserved backing to the community, whose detailed arrangement and action plans were still to be discussed.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, for example, gave qualified support to the enlarged Asian grouping.

"You can have this other alignment as long as it aids economic growth and political stability and as long as it doesn't undermine but rather complements the dynamics of ASEAN," Arroyo was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying.

ASEAN and Japan are also members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), whose annual meeting ended in disappointment in Bangkok, Thailand in October due to overindulgence in security issues, especially the campaign against terrorism.