Hua Hin: Asian leaders discussed plans at a major summit on Saturday to "lead the world" by forming an EU-style community, while urging action from pariah states North Korea and Myanmar.
The Premiers of regional giants China and India also sought to foster unity on the sidelines of the regional summit in Thailand after months of trading barbs over long-standing territorial issues.
Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama`s proposal for an East Asian community that could take a leading role in global efforts to recover from the economic crisis took centre stage on Saturday.
"It would be meaningful for us to have the aspiration that East Asia is going to lead the world and with the various countries with different regimes cooperating with each other towards that perspective," Hatoyama, who took office last month, told the Bangkok Post newspaper.
The community would involve the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with regional partners China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand, Japanese officials have said.
But there was debate at the summit in the Thai beach resort of Hua Hin over whether it would also include the United States.
Hatoyama said Tokyo`s alliance with Washington was the "cornerstone" of Japanese policy but said the region should "try to reduce as much as possible the gaps, the disparities that exist amongst the Asian countries".
China would "doubtless" grow further, particularly economically, "but I do not necessarily regard that as a threat," Hatoyama said.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva welcomed the proposal.
"We`re very interested to hear from the prime minister his vision concerning the East Asia community, partly because I don`t think anybody would see differently in terms of the need for greater integration," he told reporters late Friday.
"The trend is there and I think the political will is also there, the issue is more about the... steps by which that could be achieved."
East Asian nations would carry out a feasibility study for a huge free trade zone covering ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea and a larger group also involving India, Australia and New Zealand, officials said.
Increased integration has been a recurring theme of the meetings in Thailand, as the rapidly changing region seeks to capitalise on the fact that it has recovered more quickly from the recession than the West.
ASEAN leaders have been discussing plans to create their own political and economic community by 2015. They also launched the region`s first ever human rights watchdog on Friday.
Myanmar urged to hold elections
Leaders of the Southeast Asian bloc in a statement on Saturday urged military-ruled Myanmar to hold free and fair elections in 2010 but made no mention of detained pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
The group has faced international criticism in the past for failing to press Myanmar`s junta to free Suu Kyi. The Nobel Peace Prize winner was sentenced to a further 18 months under house arrest in August.
The statement also said that communist North Korea should "comply fully with its obligations" under UN Security Council resolutions on its nuclear programme and urged it to return to multi-nation disarmament talks.
Leaders of India, China meet
Despite the region`s calls for unity, cross-border disputes have continued to dog the summit.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh held "productive" talks on the sidelines of the summit on Saturday but did not discuss their spat over territorial issues, officials said.
"We have reached important consensus on promoting bilateral ties," Wen was quoted as saying by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
Beijing has voiced its opposition to a recent visit by Singh to Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian border state at the core of the dispute, and to a planned visit there next month by the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
Arunachal Pradesh and the Dalai Lama were not discussed at Saturday`s meeting, an Indian delegation official said. The two nations fought a border war in 1962.
Thailand and Cambodia remained at loggerheads over the fate of fugitive former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra, after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen bizarrely offered him a job as his economic adviser.
Around 18,000 troops and dozens of armoured vehicles have been deployed in Hua Hin after the summit was twice postponed by anti-government protests, with another 18,000 on standby or on duty in Bangkok.