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By Jason Szep and Yoko Nishikawa
HUA HIN, Thailand (Reuters) - Japan's prime minister backed a U.S. role for a proposed EU-style Asian community on Saturday, telling Southeast Asian leaders Tokyo's alliance with Washington was at the heart of its diplomacy.
Making a case for an East Asian Community at a summit of Asian leaders in Thailand, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said there should be some U.S. involvement in the bloc, which faces stiff obstacles including Japan's historic rivalry with China.
It was unclear how a U.S. role would work. But the comment may help allay concern in some countries that such a body would ultimately fail by shutting out the world's biggest economy.
Hatoyama may also be trying to defuse U.S.-Japan tension over the long-planned reorganisation of the American military presence in Japan, the first big test of ties between Washington and the new Japanese government.
"Japan places the U.S.-Japan alliance at the foundation of its diplomacy," Hatoyama said at the meeting, according to a Japanese government spokesman.
"I would like to firmly promote regional cooperation in East Asia with a long-term vision of forming an East Asian Community." Several Southeast Asian leaders expressed support for the bloc, but none spoke of a U.S. role at the meetings.
The talks are part of a three-day leaders' summit which got off to a rancorous start on Friday, marred by a diplomatic spat between Thailand and neighbour Cambodia, a trade feud over Filipino rice and a few no-shows in the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
China had a very different message at the meetings, signalling possible trouble ahead for Hatoyama. While he promoted a new community, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao focussed on the current one, delivering what Chinese state media described as a six-point proposal for strengthening links with ASEAN.
This included developing a recently signed China-ASEAN free trade pact and accelerating regional infrastructure construction.
MYANMAR, NORTH KOREA
An ASEAN statement summing up talks within its own members urged its most recalcitrant state, Myanmar, to ensure elections next year are free and fair, though it stopped short of seeking the release of detained pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
That came a day after ASEAN launched a human rights commission as part of a plan to build an economic and political community by 2015, and drew a scathing rebuke from rights activists who said it was toothless and lacked independence.
The region's leaders also called on North Korea to return to six-way nuclear disarmament talks.
The summit in the resort town of Hua Hin gave Asia's economic titans, China and Japan, a chance to jockey for influence in Southeast Asia, a region of 570 million people with a combined $1.1 trillion (675 billion pounds) economy, as it pulls out of recession.
Japan's new government sees its influence bound to the East Asian Community, an idea inspired by the European Union that would account for nearly a quarter of global economic output.
It would encompass Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand, along with ASEAN countries.
After meetings with China, Japan and South Korea, ASEAN holds talks on Sunday with India, Australia and New Zealand.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Sunday will push another idea for a new, separate forum of Asia-Pacific nations to respond to regional crises. His idea includes the United States.
Washington has stepped up Asian diplomacy under the Obama administration and fears missing out on such groupings, especially as Japan considers redefining its U.S. security alliance, and Beijing expands its diplomatic and trade presence.
Exactly how Washington would participate is uncertain.
Asked if Washington would be a member of the Community, a Japanese government official told reporters: "It remains unclear. We have to see how multilateral meetings will turn out today."
The proposal wasn't elaborated upon, said Mari Elka Pangestu, trade minister of Indonesia, Southeast Asia's biggest economy. "How the U.S. participates -- because the U.S. is one of our dialogue partners -- we need to think through."
China has been coy about the idea while rapidly expanding ties across Southeast Asia -- from building sleek new government offices in Cambodia to working closely with reclusive Myanmar.
"China wants to establish healthy relations with the new government in Japan, so it is not going to object to discussing this idea," said Shi Yinhong, a regional security professor at Beijing's Renmin University.
"But everybody understands the idea of an East Asia Community is extremely far off," he added.
Host Thailand deployed about 18,000 security personnel backed by military gunships, determined to avoid a rerun of mishaps at past summits.
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)