Sixteen countries across Asia and the Pacific are cozying up to find their way out of the economic recession together.
At a weekend meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Premier Wen Jiabao said China said it would provide $15 billion in credit to other ASEAN countries and 270 million yuan ($40 million) in special aid to less developed members of the group.
China announced in April it would set up a $10-billion China-ASEAN fund for investment cooperation to support infrastructure development in the region.
Leaders also said they would jointly fight other major challenges such as global warming, food and energy crises, and disaster relief.
Analysts say deepening regionalization would empower Asia and Pacific countries at a critical time when the economic recession has yet to end.
The China-ASEAN Free Trade Area, the biggest of its kind for developing countries, will be effective next January.
But analysts warn that the countries are still too widely divided to form any true "community".
In addition to China, state or government leaders from the 10 ASEAN countries, plus Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand also attended the fourth East Asian summit over the weekend.
Countries in the region should, "with a spirit of openness and tolerance and in a step-by-step manner, work for consensus and move toward the long-term goal of establishing an East Asian community, while having due respect for diversity", Wen told leaders at the East Asia summit yesterday.
Ten documents, ranging from deepening cooperation in disaster relief to intellectual property rights protection, were signed yesterday.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the host and current chair of the ASEAN presidency, urged ASEAN countries to get closer to become more influential in the international community.
"Over the past year we have proven that ASEAN continues to move forward. We have risen to the challenges of the times," Abhisit told a press conference yesterday, noting the grouping is ambitious in creating a community like the European Union by 2015 among its 10 member states.
Similarly, Japan and Australia also pushed competing visions for forming an East Asian bloc.
Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who during his campaign promised to create a more equal partnership with the United States, said he wanted to promote Asian cooperation in free trade agreements, finance, currency, energy, environment and disaster relief.
The purpose of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's Asia-Pacific Community would be to "cooperate on economic, political and security matters and dispel notions that a conflict in Asia may be inevitable," according to Bloomberg News.
"What I detect across the region is an openness to a discussion about how we evolve our regional architecture into the future," Rudd was quoted as saying by AAP news agency.
Wide divisions remain
Experts said the economic turmoil has pushed Asian and Pacific countries closer in order to face global challenges, but noted that countries in the region are still widely divided.
"ASEAN's regional integration is going on, but the countries have too many differences, raging from political systems and culture to religion. That makes it more difficult for us to set up a EU-style group in the region," said Su Hao, director of the Center for Strategic and Conflict Management with the China Foreign Affairs University.
Kavi Chongkittavorn, former assistant to the ASEAN secretary-general, said the group is divided along "ideological and generational lines" that have left it polarized on issues like human rights, political intervention and territorial disputes.
"They have to catch up to new political concepts, or the whole thing will crumble," Kavi said.
Since opening on Friday, the 15th ASEAN summit saw disagreements among member nations that overshadowed the meeting's theme - enhancing connectivity - and raised questions on how unified the bloc truly is.
Poor attendance marred the start of the meeting, when leaders from some of the largest Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, did not show up for the opening ceremony on Friday, citing reasons ranging from weather disturbances to domestic obligations.
Despite its goal of creating a community, ASEAN's main challenge in recent months has been to dampen long-running conflicts and disagreements.
Relations between Thailand and Cambodia have worsened over a border dispute near an ancient hilltop temple, Preah Vihear. Over the past year, troops in the border area have skirmished several times, leaving seven people dead, according to the International Herald Tribune.
Protesters on Saturday threatened to surround the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok next month unless Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen withdraws his troops and removes the Cambodian community from the temple.
Soon after his arrival into Hua Hin, Hun Sen was involved in verbal saber rattling with Abhisit over ousted former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Hun Sen said on Friday that Thaksin would be allowed to stay in Cambodia and may even serve as his economic adviser. Abhisit responded, saying Hun Sen should "help the meeting reach its goals", but "don't allow anybody to use you as a pawn".
"Establishing an East Asia community will be a long-term goal. But at least the countries have realized the need to cooperate and have taken concrete steps such as setting up a free trade area. We must remain patient," Su Hao said.