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What Is Asia?

Europe, Africa, and the Americas all have regular summits of their leaders. But what of Asia, home to half of humanity?

Not yet.

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The region has long been divided by war, racism, and oceans. But come this December, the first summit is planned for at least 13 Asian nations. The hope is to emulate the European Union by setting up a similar, more powerful entity. But even before getting to the difficult details of economic integration, the effort has been slowed by this simple question:

What is Asia?

The core 13 nations include the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) along with China, Japan, and South Korea. Together, even with the awkward exclusion of Taiwan, they form an East Asian bloc of nearly 2 billion people. On paper, that would dwarf the EU and Nafta combined.

ASEAN, which ranges from backward Burma to high-tech Singapore to giant Indonesia, is so far controlling this initiative. On Monday, it boldly asked Australia to join the summit, but only if it signs a treaty promising not to use force to resolve regional differences. In an age of terrorism, that's difficult for Australia, a US ally, to do. But it's inclined to join if just for the economic benefits.

But what of India, with one billion people, as well as the other South Asia nations? Are Bombay or Karachi not similar to or close enough with Seoul or Manila to be in the same trade zone?

Also on Monday, a summit between China and India sealed a pact that aims to join those two giant economies by removing many trade barriers. India declared that the accord could "reshape the world order."

China has also signed a trade accord with ASEAN, even as Japan tries for bilateral pacts with each Southeast Asian nation. Asean itself, which was set up during the cold war to fend off communism, has tried but largely failed to make itself into a free-trade zone.

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Not all Asian economies are compatible, and in fact, one of the region's problems is that so much of its trade is with the US and Europe. Trying to create an "Asian Economic Community" would take great political will to overcome competitive differences.

But try they must - to define the region, to avoid splintering into small trade partnerships and, most important, to envelop Asia economically in order to reduce political tensions.

Asians usually define themselves as Asians only when dealing with the West. But they can find more peace and prosperity if they start to unite on their own terms.


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