SINGAPORE - Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pressed Asia-Pacific nations Saturday to back his proposal for a more powerful regional group that will embrace political, security and economic issues by 2020.
"Our proposal for an Asia-Pacific Community seeks to do this," he said ahead of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit that includes US President Barack Obama and his Chinese, Japanese and Russian counterparts.
Rudd said no existing institution was designed to address the full range of issues facing the region.
Political and security issues are not part of the mission of APEC, founded 20 years ago to promote free trade and investment among Pacific Rim nations.
Asian diplomats say there are differences over the roles of China and the United States, the top military powers in the Pacific, in any enlarged European Union-style group that would handle political and security issues.
"It makes sense for us as we think of ourselves for the next quarter of a century as a region to have America inextricably involved in what we are doing, however our debate about regional institutions may unfold," Rudd said.
Japanese premier Yukio Hatoyama, who has pushed for an alternative East Asian community but been vague over the role of the US, said he had told Obama during his visit to Tokyo this week that it would be an important member.
"I naturally want the US to play a big role in my idea of an East Asian community," Hatoyama told an APEC business forum.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, speaking at the same forum, said current organisations served the region well but evolution was inevitable and members should be open to new ideas like the Australian and Japanese proposals.
"As to how we get there, when we get there, there are so many alternatives and maybe two years from now, three years from now, five years from now, the global situation and challenges might throw up even more alternatives in terms of integration," Abhisit said.
"We should reject none of these proposals but rather be aware that this is something that we all have to do."
Rudd said his proposal "seeks to bring together in a single institution over time the economies and countries of our region with an agenda which covers the entire space, not just part of it."
APEC is "just a gathering of economies" and the East Asian Summit, built around the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), excludes the United States, Rudd noted.
A former diplomat, he said there was a need for a broader grouping to "avoid the reemergence of fundamental strategic rifts" in the region.
"Right now we have a vast array of institutions, each of them performing a critical and valuable role," he said.
The Australian leader said there was a need for an "inclusive, long-term regional architecture, both economic, political and security" that includes the United States.
He underscored the importance of the American market to Asian exporters and the "stabilising presence" of the US military, which he credited for helping avert any major conflict in the region over the past 30 years.