Malaysia is determined to forge its vision of a regional trade group that pointedly excludes North America and Australia, and is becoming increasingly strident about it.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's latest remarks in effect accuse the United States of sabotaging the idea and sharply increase criticism of Japan, which he sees as the key to it.The Malaysian leader, frequently waspish in comments about the West, said Japan is "under the control of the United States, and the United States does not allow Japan to join the EAEC. Japan is finding excuses."
The East Asia Economic Caucus is the brainchild of Mr. Mahathir. He is pushing it in favor of the wider Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group backed by the United States.
The EAEC would be restricted to countries along the Pacific Rim. The APEC group of 19 includes the United States, Canada, Chile, Japan, Australia, New Zealand as well as all main states along the western Pacific seaboard.
Malaysia put forward the EAEC proposal in 1990 for the purpose of ''discussing matters related to free trade" by regional nations, with Japan a targeted member.
The United States and others left out of Mr. Mahathir's vision oppose the EAEC as divisive and potentially protectionist; some also say racist. The more
broadly based APEC, they say, is the better forum to accomplish Mr. Mahathir's stated objectives.
Mr. Mahathir said he failed to understand why Japan has now raised as a prerequisite for its EAEC membership consensus among the APEC members.
"Previously, Japan said it would accept if Asean agrees. Now that Asean, including Vietnam, has agreed, it brings (up) APEC," Mr. Mahathir said in Kuala Lumpur.
Asean - the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - comprises Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Asean is also a member of APEC.
At their meeting in Brunei last week, the Asean seven reaffirmed a commitment to an early realization of the EAEC.
Yohei Kono, Japan's foreign minister, who attended as an observer, said Japan would like to see APEC agree formally first before it joins Mr. Mahathir's group.
"As you know, the United States is still very much opposed to the idea of the EAEC. Some other countries are opposed to the EAEC as well," a spokesman for the minister said.
"APEC has been so much developed. In view of this situation, we should avoid any attempt to divide APEC countries. EAEC should be launched with blessings of APEC countries. If this is not the case, than it would divide APEC countries," he said.
The EAEC hasn't got much beyond the discussion stage, largely because Japan is deemed vital if it is to have any real clout. Asked whether Japan's continued indecision will hold up progress further, Mr. Mahathir said: "It may be delayed, but we will continue with our efforts."
Rafidah Aziz, international trade and industry minister, turned up the heat on Japan earlier, saying countries of East Asia should decide independently and need not seek the blessing of others to join.
"It is sad to see the behavior of some countries who could not make their own decisions. What is more amazing, even the big boys are practicing such behavior. Why can't they decide once and for all whether they want to join the caucus or not," she said, without naming any country.
In an interview last month with Japan's Kyodo News Service, Asmat Kamaludin, a Malaysian trade ministry official, remarked: "The Japanese say they are studying participation, but they have been saying 'study' for a long time."