Australia, Japan pitch rival ideas for new Asia bloc

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HUA HIN, Thailand, Oct 25 (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd floated a second model for a pan-Asia economic bloc on Sunday, challenging a Japanese idea by making U.S. involvement a key component of his plan.

Rudd's plan encompasses a broader collection of states than Japan's East Asia Community grouping which Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama pitched to 16 Asia-Pacific leaders at a summit in the Thai seaside resort of Hua Hin at the weekend.

Rudd, who first presented his "Asia-Pacific community" idea in June last year, told leaders on the sidelines of the summit his plan centered on increasing regional cooperation in areas of the economy, security and the environment.[ID:nSP389695]

"What I detect across the region is an openness to a discussion about how we evolve our regional architecture into the future," said Rudd, who has put a long-term timetable on his plan -- 2020.

Both the Japanese and Australian ideas would encompass Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand, along with the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The key difference between the two is Rudd's plan definitely includes the United States while Hatoyama's doesn't. Japan's EU-style proposal, which Hatoyama says is at least 10 years away, includes a common regional currency. [ID:nSP165012]

Washington has stepped up Asian diplomacy under the Obama administration and fears missing out on such groupings, especially as Japan considers redefining its U.S. security alliance, and Beijing expands its diplomatic and trade presence.

Japan's new government, which has pledged to steer a diplomatic course less dependent on close security ally Washington, has been vague on U.S. participation.

"I think my long-term vision of forming an East Asia community was largely welcomed by participants," Hatoyama told reporters on Sunday.

"It's not a matter of who will be included or not. There is no need to decide now whether we should include the United States or not."

Japan's new government sees its influence bound to the East Asia Community, an idea inspired by the European Union that would account for nearly a quarter of global economic output.


The summit in Hua Hin gave Asia's economic titans, China and Japan, a chance to jockey for influence in Southeast Asia, a region of 570 million people with a combined $1.1 trillion economy, as it pulls out of recession.

China has been coy about ideas for what is being called the "regional architecture" while rapidly expanding ties across Southeast Asia -- from building sleek new government offices in Cambodia to working closely with reclusive Myanmar.

Asked about the two proposals, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said Southeast Asian leaders had emphasised that it was not all that important to decide on some kind of rigid structure for the time being.

But he said the "regional architecture will continue to evolve and we must find a way to improve upon the way that we work together to address the issue".

Australia believes it is better placed than major powers such as Japan, China or the United States to promote such an idea as smaller countries may suspect there may be some hidden or self-serving agenda.

"While it might be argued that Australia is the right state to put forward proposals, some Asia-Pacific leaders consider Australia far from neutral as a result of our closeness to the U.S., even where they accept Australia as part of the region," said Ken Boutin of Australia's Deakin University.

Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan and Yoko Nishikawa; Editing by Jason Szep