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E. Asia set to enter a new era of economic relations

By Larry Teo, The Straits Times, 26 November 2000

But the new tripartite summit involving China, Japan and S. Korea will never become a North-east Asian caucus that will marginalise Asean

TWO landmark decisions - annual tripartite summits and closer economic integration - by China, Japan and South Korea rang in a new era of inter-regional cooperation in East Asia as the Asean-plus-three summit wound up.

The three economic powerhouses of North-east Asia are now expected to be in a better position to coordinate their efforts, especially in helping Asean members with slower economic growth.

The three-way talks will, however, never become a North-east Asian caucus that would marginalise Asean's interests, officials from Japan and China were quick to assure cynics.

'The summit will tackle issues which have a bearing on Asean,' a spokesman for Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori told reporters on Friday.

Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Wang Yi, when asked if the summit could be a catalyst for peace in the Korean peninsula, replied that when these talks take place, the focus would be on South-east Asia.

'Do not lump North-east Asian issues as part of South-east Asia, for they are two different regions.'

No one would question that the trio would do well by harmonising their visions and projects planned for Asean.

One example is in the IT sector, for which they have together committed more than US$15 billion (S$26 billion) to the region.

Although the bulk is coming from Japan, the South Koreans and the Chinese are quick to offer training to personnel from countries still napping in an IT-dominated world.

The laggards include Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and large parts of Indonesia. With coordinated and streamlined help, the digital divide will close up faster.

Also, China's expressed keenness in doing its part for the completion of the Tran-Asia Railway is being matched by Seoul's zeal in connecting itself to Pyongyang, and then to Europe and South-east Asia.

Under the financial and technical aegis of the three countries, the project of linking Bangkok to Kunming, the vital missing stretch in this inter-continental dream, will be completed earlier than if funded only by Japan.

The 10 Asean countries also left the meeting with the happy surprise that their economic integration with China would soon take place, following Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji's support for a team of experts to be brought together to study the issue.

They also should be pleased with China's rosy prediction that its entry into the World Trade Organisation would not endanger Asean's growth as the two entities do not cross each other's economic paths.

In fact, with so many kind words, Asean should now knuckle down to prove that Mr Zhu's theory of the Asean-China complementarity is correct. China's interest in integrating more closely with Japan and South Korea - and forming a powerful economic entity - had been a nagging worry before and throughout the summit.

Thus some officials saw Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's disclosure on Friday about evolving a grouping involving North-east and South-east Asia as Asean's rejoinder to the news break at breakfast that day that Japan, China and South Korea would hold a regular summit meeting.

With the threat of the three powers joining strengths now laid to rest, it is time for the Asean countries to live up to the challenges of a new era.