PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 November, 2002, 12:00am

ONE CAN ALMOST hear the tectonic plates shifting these days as the countries of East Asia head towards greater economic integration in an attempt to form a regional bloc to counter those in North America and Europe. Already, there are people talking about a future economic community. And beyond that, who knows?

'The nations of East Asia were never one,' Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said last month at a meeting of young Asian leaders in Kuala Lumpur. 'For most of history, we quarrelled with one another. For long periods, many of us also became a prey for Western powers. We could not even deliberate upon our place in the region, for our sovereignty and our capacity to decide were usurped by these powers.'

But, Mr Abdullah asserted, things are different now. 'Today, the East Asian idea is no longer contentious. It is reality. It has taken the form of an Asean-plus-three process involving the 10 Asean countries and the three largest economies in the region - Japan, China and South Korea.'

The increasing dynamism of the reality of East Asia is very much in evidence. This month in Phnom Penh, the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea met each other and the leaders of the 10 Asean countries, the sixth such Asean-plus-three exercise since 1997. And during the meeting Premier Zhu Rongji, on China's behalf, signed an agreement with Asean to set up a free-trade area by 2010.

World's largest free-trade area

This is a significant move, since it will create the world's largest free-trade area, embracing 1.7 billion people in a total economy of more than US$2 trillion (HK$15.6 trillion). Just as significantly, the day after China signed the agreement, Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi signed a similar, though less specific, plan. South Korea, too, is interested in a similar arrangement.

No doubt it will be a long time before the nations of East Asia can get their acts together. In the meantime, there is a lot to be done. Asean's outgoing secretary-general, Rodolfo Severino, told the organisation's leaders in Cambodia that they needed to urgently recognise the need for regional integration, as well as making it their goal.

'What kind of economic integration should Asean strive for?' he asked. 'Should Asean now aim for a customs union? A common market? A single market? An economic union?' There is growing recognition that Asean needs to come to grips with those questions. Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong spoke last month of a 'nascent sense of an East Asian community' emerging, although Asean and the countries of Northeast Asia have yet 'to crystallise a common vision on the nature and direction of East Asian co-operation'.

Similarly, in Northeast Asia there is a rising awareness of the need for regional co-operation and integration. Korean scholar Jang Sung-min has suggested that China, Japan and Korea move towards what he called a 'concert of Northeast Asia' as a step towards the creation of a regional community.

Move towards greater integration

Mr Jang wrote: 'Given that Europe took close to half a century to form the European Union, starting from the European Coal and Steel Community to the creation of a single currency, the euro, it will probably take many years to build a northeast regional community.'

Under this scenario, when both Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia are ready, the two groups can then move towards greater integration with one another to form an East Asian regional organisation.

For now, the Asean-plus-three process seems to be functioning well. But some people worry about who will dominate a future East Asia. Will it be Asean or its partners, the 'plus three'?

According to Kavi Chongkittavorn, of The Nation newspaper in Bangkok, this fear accounts for the opposition in Kuala Lumpur to the setting up of an Asean-plus-three secretariat. 'Deep down, opponents fear the new secretariat will transform Asean-plus-three into Three-plus-Asean, with the East Asian economic powerhouses in the driver's seat,' he wrote. 'In other words, Northeast Asian economies would trump Asean. That way, Asean will be further weakened and not be able to operate as a collective group.'

Such fears are understandable. But East Asian nations have little choice but to work towards greater economic integration and political co-operation. The vision is there. The process has started. And the credit goes to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who started things going by proposing an East Asia Economic Caucus, derided by its critics as a 'caucus without Caucasians'.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator