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Sunday, October 25, 2009

CORRECTED: ASEAN divided over inclusion of U.S. in envisaged E. Asia community+

community+ (AP) - HUA HIN, Thailand, Oct. 25 (Kyodo)—Leaders of the 10-member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are divided over whether the United States should be included in an East Asian community as envisaged by Japan's new leader Yukio Hatoyama, senior ASEAN officials said Sunday.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that as of this juncture, half of ASEAN members favor inclusion of the United States and the other oppose it.

Hatoyama said Saturday in a 13-nation summit meeting with ASEAN leaders and those from China and South Korea, held at Thailand's seaside resort of Hua Hin, that he favors U.S. involvement in the envisioned community for closer regional cooperation.

But what the Japanese prime minister meant by U.S. involvement remains unclear as he has been vague on specifics.

Hatoyama later told reporters, "I don't intend to exclude the United States or any other country."

Meanwhile, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya told a press conference that ASEAN leaders welcomed Hatoyama's initiative, saying that while an East Asian community is possible to achieve, it would take time.

But at this stage, according to ASEAN senior officials, only the five original ASEAN members -- Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand -- have indicated that they favor having the United States on board.

ASEAN also includes Brunei and the grouping's less-developed newer members Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Some of those opposed are concerned that inclusion of the United States would make the community to large and unwieldy, and that ASEAN would lose its core role and become a "minority" in the community, the ASEAN officials said.

But some of those in favor feel U.S. inclusion would be of benefit to ASEAN, by helping offset the strong influence that China would have in the proposed community, for example.

One official said ASEAN is now thinking on "how many legs" the East Asia community should have -- "13 legs, 16 legs or more than that?"

ASEAN, which is already committed to forging an ASEAN Community by has already for years played a central role by hosting two separate annual gatherings of leaders of countries outside Southeast Asia -- the 13-nation ASEAN-plus-three summit with Japan, China, and South Korea, as well as 16-nation East Asia Summit that also includes Australia, India and New Zealand.

Whether or not the United States will be included in a future East Asian community aside, it has been strengthening its role and influence in the region.

In July, the Washington consolidated relations with the four Lower Mekong nations of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam through the holding of their first-ever ministerial meeting, while next month the first-ever U.S.-ASEAN summit will be held, marking a historic point in the ASEAN-U.S. Dialogue Relations that began in 1977.

ASEAN leaders, in a statement Saturday, welcomed the upcoming summit and said it reflects the "strong commitment" of the new administration of U.S. President Barack Obama "to deepen and expand its engagement with ASEAN."

The Philippines, which has been tasked by ASEAN to coordinate its relations with the United States, has drafted a concept paper on ASEAN-U.S. relations that suggests future cooperation in the seven areas -- global economy, nuclear-proliferation and disarmament, climate change, disaster management, health pandemics, energy security and fighting transnational crime, according to the officials.

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