Southeast Asian Nations Agree to Free Trade Zone
In light of declining investment in the area and growing competition from India and China, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed an accord that would eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers in order to create a single economy by 2020. ASEAN left open the possibility of advancing the deadline.
“Seventeen years from now might be too late,” Reuters quoted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as saying.
But the diversity of governance, which includes communist autocracies, monarchies and fledgling democracies, could hinder the economic transformation, the countries’ leaders acknowledged, according to the Associated Press.
Thaskin said the differences in economic levels among members nations meant the deadline for creating the trading bloc — called the ASEAN Economic Community — could be staggered.
Along with Thailand, ASEAN is made up of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (formerly Burma), the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. The region contains 500 million people with annual trade totaling $720 billion.
“We have just witnessed a watershed in the history of ASEAN,” Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri said at the signing. “It will make it possible for our children and their children to live in enduring peace, stability and shared prosperity.”
The bloc is working on implementing free trade agreements with China by 2010, India by 2011 and Japan by 2012, said ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong at the meeting, Reuters reported.
The United States is expected to enter negotiations with Thailand on a free trade agreement as well. President Bush will travel to Thailand in two weeks, where he is expected to make the announcement.
ASEAN countries also are considering taking a more unified approach to regional problems such as terrorism, money laundering and people smuggling.
“We must tackle them in a more effective manner,” said Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa, according to the AP. “So far we’ve done it in a very piecemeal fashion.”
At this week’s meeting, Southeast Asian representatives avoided the issue of Myanmar’s detention of democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Some ASEAN members had called for her release prior to the summit.
But Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad urged his colleagues to uphold their policy of “noninterference in the internal affairs of member countries,” according to the AP, and the nations complied.