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ASEAN members to focus on more free trade

by Staff Writers
Bangkok (UPI) Oct 26, 2009
Asian leaders ended their 15th ASEAN regional summit by agreeing to improve their internal free trade and work closely with their newly formed human-rights commission.

Pre-summit handwringing was replaced by handholding on the last day of meetings as the 16 leaders posed in a final photo call in the fashionable seaside resort of Hua Hin, southern Thailand.

A move towards a more EU-style of organization will be considered by the 10 member countries of Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and Indonesia.

The subject was raised in private meetings of ASEAN leaders with leaders of the six nations considered partners in the region and with whom good relations are essential for economic progress -- China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

On Saturday Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama faced the media and urged ASEAN members to open up their borders to more free trade in the fashion of the European Union and do it by 2015. Southeast Asia is bouncing back from the global financial downturn more rapidly than expected, and Hatoyama said the countries should not lose this momentum.

The idea of a free-trade area is not new to ASEAN.

In 1992 the then six members of ASEAN formed the ASEAN Free Trade Area, a common external preferential tariff scheme to promote the free flow of goods within the member countries. The signatories were Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. The newer members are still adapting to AFTA rules, and establishing a level playing field for common tariffs has proved difficult.

Just before the summit a war of words over tariffs broke out between Thailand, the world's biggest producer of rice, and its major market, the Philippines. Thailand said it would drag its heels over lowering tariffs in general under AFTA rules unless the Philippines reduced their rice duties.

In an agreement to disagree, the subject was removed from the summit's agenda so as not to derail any general economic cooperation meetings, according to media reports.

ASEAN is also talking with the European Union to establish more formal free-trade ties. But here the continuing issue of human rights in Myanmar, in particular the ongoing detention of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and pro-democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, remains an obstacle to breaking down trade barriers between the two blocs.

ASEAN has insisted that it would not kick Myanmar out of the bloc over its human-rights record, as some European critics have wanted before more preferential trade is set up. ASEAN countries have insisted on a continued dialogue with Myanmar and have from time to time urged the ruling military to free political prisoners including Suu Kyi and the junta to hold the free elections they promised for next year.

ASEAN members did, however, go some way to putting more pressure on Myanmar on the opening day of the summit by officially setting up a long-proposed ASEAN commission on human rights. But critics have said it is just window dressing because it has no formal powers of punishment for countries falling foul on any issues.

The next big gathering of ASEAN countries will take place at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Singapore Nov. 12-14. ASEAN leaders have a one-hour meeting planned with President Barack Obama.

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