Malaysia's Abdullah Calls For Early Creation Of East Asia FTA

May 25, 2006

TOKYO (Nikkei)--Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi called for the prompt conclusion of an East Asian free trade agreement as the first step toward creating an East Asian Community, at a forum in Tokyo Thursday.

Speaking at the 12th Future of Asia conference, sponsored by Nihon Keizai Shimbun Inc., Abdullah also called on Japan to improve its strained relations with China and South Korea, and expressed concern that the ties were deteriorating.

"In addition to the difficulties between Beijing and Tokyo, relations between Seoul and Tokyo have also become further strained," Abdullah said.

Citing his fear that damaged ties among the three key nations in East Asia could destabilize the entire region, Abdullah stressed the importance of continuing "dialogue," while saying that Malaysia has no intention of "interfering" in their affairs.

Referring to the entire region, including Japan, China and South Korea, Abdullah said that Asia should not repeat history by being "divided and carved up at the whims and fancies of others." He also said: "We should not let our bilateral differences get in the way of building the East Asia Community. We should not allow regional cooperation to be held hostage to bilateral constraints."

He dismissed concerns among some quarters that China, with its rapid growth, could pose a threat to other Asian countries, saying, "Such an attitude will affect our cohesiveness and dampen our efforts at community building in East Asia."

The Malaysian prime minister urged each country in the region to devise concrete measures with an eye toward realizing an East Asian Community. "We are also well behind in realizing our initiative to build an East Asia free trade area," calling on the relevant countries to pursue the goal "with greater urgency and seriousness."

He predicted that the free trade zone would encompass as many as 2 billion people, thus implying that India, with a population of more than 1 billion, would not be included for the time being. Abdullah's comment indicates that he wants members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as Japan, China and South Korea, to take the initiative in creating the trade area.

After his address, a focus session was held to discuss a range of issues facing East Asia.

At the discussion, Philippine Ambassador to Japan Domingo Siazon said Japan's strained relationships with China and South Korea are a concern to neighboring countries, while Chinese Ambassador to Japan Wang Yi acknowledged that there are some "difficulties" plaguing Japan-China and Japan-South Korea relations.

On the issue of an Asian community, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Thomas Hubbard indicated concern that regional integration in Asia will proceed without the participation of the U.S. He said it would be unfortunate if such a community encouraged Asian countries to draw a line in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to exclude the U.S. from their affairs.

Titles of speakers, names of companies, etc., were correct as of the time when the forum was held.