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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 October, 2003, 13:46 GMT 14:46 UK
Asean: Changing, but only slowly

By Tim Luard
BBC News Online

South East Asian nations have come up with their grandest plan yet for a European-style Community - but whether they will match their fine words with prompt action is another matter altogether.

They have signed a declaration to set up a free trade area by 2020 to try to balance the low-wage competition and huge markets of India and China. They also say they are moving closer on political, security and social issues.

Asean leaders meet in Bali
Asean leaders have a reputation for caution and consensus
But the huge economic, political and cultural differences between the 10 members of Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) mean that progress towards a closer union is proving slower than many would like.

Asean has always been famous for its fondness for caution and consensus, and the finely worded document produced at the group's summit in Bali this week, called the Bali Concord II, is once again stronger on form than substance.

Officially described as marking a "watershed" in the group's history, it says the proposed Asean Community" will be set upon "three pillars, namely political and security cooperation, economic cooperation, and socio-cultural cooperation... for the purpose of ensuring durable peace, stability and shared prosperity in the region".

Perhaps the most notable aspect about the document is its commitment to promote democracy.

This is the first time the word has been used in an official Asean accord, according to MC Abad, who is spokesman for the group's secretariat.

"Through the Bali Concord 11, Asean has subscribed to the notion of democratic peace, which means all member countries believe democratic processes will promote regional peace and stability," he told BBC News Online.

Asked if there had been opposition from non-democratic Asean members such as Burma, Vietnam and Laos, Mr Abad admitted there had been a long discussion on the subject.

Asean member countries

"But in the end they all agreed that it was something all member states should aspire to."

Mr Abad said the accord as a whole was significant since it showed Asean was transforming itself from an inter-governmental framework to a "community framework" similar in some respects to the European Community.

It was moving into a single market, liberalising trade in goods and the movement of labour and capital at the same time as developing a closer political and security dialogue.

But regional leaders are stressing that they do not want to create a political union like western Europe's or a military alliance akin to Nato.

In their closing statement, they formally reaffirmed their traditional commitment not to interfere in each others' affairs - a stance they put into practice at this week's meeting by avoiding any criticism of Burma over the detainment of Aung San Suu Kyi.

But there are signs that in some respects at least, Asean may be starting to move away from the long-cherished non-interference principle.

Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who has been one of the main supporters of the proposed new security community, said it was aimed at addressing issues such as "terrorism and separatism".

The inclusion of separatism as something to be handled regionally would be a serious violation of the principle of non-interference, according to J Soedjati Djiwandono, a political analyst in Jakarta.

Asean is often criticised for being all talk and no action, and some observers believe the far-reaching commitments made this week will be hard to carry out.

Others say the timetable for ending economic tariffs and travel restrictions is simply much too slow.
China's premier Wen Jiabao and Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri
South East Asia hopes to make China a partner rather than a rival

The group includes fledgling but freewheeling democracies such as the Philippines, economic tigers like Malaysia, an absolute monarchy in Brunei, two developing communist countries in Vietnam and Laos and the now even poorer, military-run Burma.

Despite their differences, they want to band together to counter the burgeoning economic might of China and India, the regional powers to the north and west which are siphoning off investment seen as essential for South East Asia's development.

Richer Asean members such as Singapore and Thailand had been hoping to bring the target date of 2020 forward by several years, believing this to be the only hope of keeping pace with the likes of China

But they have repeatedly run into problems from other members anxious to protect various politically sensitive industries such as agriculture and fisheries.

A dramatic increase in American investment in China has been accompanied by a steady decline in US funds flowing to South East Asia, and this trend will persist unless Asean rapidly integrates its 10 economies, according to Ernest Bower, president of the US-Asean business council.

"Among the issues Asean will have to tackle are labour laws, customs and judicial reforms in some countries", he said.

Aware of the need to do something to counter the growing threat, Asean delegates reached new agreements on Wednesday with China, Japan and India to try to make them partners rather than competitors .

China and Asean are already committed to creating a free trade area by 2010, which would make the region the world's most populous market, with 1.7 billion consumers.

Asean deals with Asian giants
08 Oct 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Asean leaders agree trade plan
07 Oct 03  |  Asia-Pacific

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