Leaders of 16 nations from India to New Zealand inaugurated a new forum yesterday 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 Kuala Lumpur, hosted by the 10-member ASEAN.
"It was very historic," Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo told reporters after the three-and-a-half-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.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard suggested the group stick with the current lineup for now: "It's a very manageable number around the table. If you make things too big, you lose the value."
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 WTO talks on global free trade, currently under way in Hong Kong.
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."
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told other leaders that the East Asia Summit in coming years should "evolve into an opportunity for tackling concrete issues, not for just talk."
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.
Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa said continued tensions between Japan and China "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.
Malaysia originally proposed the East Asia Summit as ASEAN plus Japan, China and South Korea, aiming to reduce US influence in the region.
But it took off only after the grouping evolved to include US allies Australia and New Zealand, with tacit approval of Washington, where officials have said they'll wait to see how the bloc's goals emerge before taking a firm stance on it.