Mon, 08 Aug 1994

More luncheons required for the EAEC

By Pandaya

JAKARTA (JP): Four years after it was introduced by Malaysia, the controversial East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC) receives only tacit support from Southeast Asian countries and is still politely rejected by their Western allies.

During last month's Association of Southeast Asian Nations ministerial meeting, ASEAN officials were busy trying to sell the idea to potential members Japan, South Korea and China through working lunches.

But, alas, the response was still lukewarm.

"So how many more working luncheons should be held before the EAEC finally takes shape?" quipped a journalist.

All this suggests that Kuala Lumpur will need more time before the initiative comes to fruition.

ASEAN ministers have asked their counterparts what they think about the EAEC initiative. The Japanese reportedly maintained that anything established must not be controversial.

Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen also cast doubt over the initiative, warning that the EAEC could lead to divisions in the Asia-Pacific region.

However, ASEAN Secretary-General Dato' Ajit Singh said in last week's interview with Jakarta journalists that no country had openly rejected the EAEC idea at the recent Bangkok luncheon.

"Nobody spoke against EAEC or aired their suspicion," Dato' Ajit, whom ASEAN has assigned to explore the prospects of the initiative, said.

Now Dato' Ajit will have to bring the EAEC matter up to the three prospective members of ASEAN: Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia for support. And this will take quite some time considering the fact that ASEAN needed two years to reach consensus on the EAEC.

"We will continue to develop the concept and at the same time continue to talk among ourselves on aspects of EAEC and how we want to develop it," he said.

Dato' Ajit has visited a number of prospective member countries, including Japan, China and South Korea,to ask their ideas about the caucus initiative.

In last month's ASEAN ministerial meeting, the caucus initiative received only tacit support, including that from Indonesia which felt uneasy because it was not adequately informed on the details of the initiative at the time it was introduced.

"The foreign ministers noted the progress made in the consultations to launch the East Asia Economic Caucus with potential members and welcomed their valuable inputs and suggestions. The ministers agreed that these consultations should be continued," the ministers said in their communique.

First initiated by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhamad in December 1990 as the Asia Economic Group (EAEG), the idea was not well-planned at the time it was introduced, leaving other countries grappling for details.

EAEG was meant to be a regional economic and trade clearing house, which would not be in conflict with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) or the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) backed by the West.

Malaysia argues that with the wealthy western states strengthening their trade blocks, Asia-Pacific economies should establish their own without the U.S. and Canada, which have the NAFTA (North America Free Trade Area), and Australia and New Zealand which already have a trading agreement.

The concept met with fierce rejection from the United States' Bush administration, spearheaded by the then state secretary James Baker at the 1991 APEC forum, prompting Malaysia to bring the EAEG concept to ASEAN.

ASEAN then decided to push the EAEG concept on, realizing that the formation of European Union and NAFTA could lead to a protectionist trading block. Then APEC braved the American opposition and accepted the inclusion of EAEG within it. Washington backed the move provided that EAEG be renamed East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC).

ASEAN rejected the American opposition and managed to assure Washington that EAEC would remain an informal forum for consultations among East Asian nations and within the framework of APEC, in which the U.S. is among the 15 members.

Australia, which -- like the U.S. -- is a strong advocate of APEC, has also voiced skepticism about the EAEC.

"EAEC is an idea whose time has not yet come in terms of being a distinctive, separate organization within the region. It is a matter of waiting to see what emerges," Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans says.

"At best EAEC is a distraction from APEC, at worst it is a division within APEC," he says.

There are strong indications that ASEAN members, especially Malaysia, will have to spare a lot more time and money to hold more working luncheons to sell the EAEC idea before the caucus actually comes into being.