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Saturday, 25 November, 2000, 03:04 GMT
Asean seeks to widen its net
Leaders of Japan, South Korea and China (left to right - Yoshiro Mori, Kim Dae-jung, Zhu Rongji)
Asean is forging closer links with Japan, South Korea and China
The leaders of the 10-nation Asean grouping are holding a second day of summit talks in Singapore, where they are exploring the possibility of setting up an East Asian free trade zone.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is working with China, Japan and South Korea in a push for closer economic cooperation. Asean's market of more than 500 million people would expand to nearly two billion consumers if its three Asian neighbours joined in.

On Friday, Asean signed an agreement to boost e-commerce and the use of information technology in South-East Asia.

Under the pact, the countries will drop all tariffs on information technology goods by 2010 and develop regional high-speed internet connections.

Asean also promised action on a planned Trans-Asia railway that would run from Singapore to Kunming in China's Yunnan province - a distance of 5,513km (3,420 miles).

Piracy

The summit agenda also includes plans to combat piracy in the region's shipping lanes and the Aids epidemic.

Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid (centre)
Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid signs the e-commerce agreement

The Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshiro Mori, expressed his government's commitment to fight piracy.

A Japanese Foreign Ministry official said Mr Mori announced plans to establish anti-poverty programmes along the Malacca Strait - where piracy is at an all-time high - in a bid to reduce attacks.

He gave no further details, but said the Japanese Government would be organising a conference on combating piracy next year. The Malacca Strait, between Malaysia and Indonesia, is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes and is infested with pirates.

Powerful neighbours

Asean will study whether to turn its informal consultations with China, Japan and South Korea - dubbed Asean+3 - into a formal East Asia Summit.

Malaysia first mooted the idea of creating an East Asian Economic Caucus linking up with Asean's powerful three neighbours, but the US opposed it.

Asean members
Singapore
Thailand
Malaysia
Philippines
Burma
Indonesia
Vietnam
Cambodia
Laos
Brunei

The Singaporean Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, took a cautious approach on Friday.

He said he saw "no problem in Asean+3 evolving, if that's the desire of the leaders, into some kind of East Asia summit".

"But there are implications," he added. "I myself would not recommend a hasty evolution."

He said such a grouping would not be inward-looking, and "this is not an attempt to shut out Washington from Asia".

With economic growth under threat in South-East Asia, Asean is keen to open up lucrative new markets nearby.

Singapore has been keen to breathe new life back into Asean, which often has difficulty presenting a united front despite the countries closeness geographically.

Investment decline

Working together has become all the more crucial for Asean in the wake of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, which saw foreign direct investment in the region fall off considerably.

President Estrada
Philippines President Joseph Estrada is facing an impeachment trial

Now it is countries like Japan, Korea and China that attract most of the lucrative foreign investment.

Asean is keen to restore its attractiveness to foreign investors.

But with its mixture of countries that are as diverse politically as they are economically and culturally, the group often has real trouble pulling together as a cohesive bloc.

The economies of the poorer countries like Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Cambodia lag far behind those of the richer, economically advanced members like Singapore.

Instability

And there are additional problems of political instability, especially in Indonesia and the Philippines.

The Philippines President, Joseph Estrada, faces an impeachment trial next month and is battling for his political survival, but still found time to attend the summit.

"Asean's image has taken a real bashing in the past few years," said John Funston of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

"Domestic politics are having a bigger impact on the way foreign policy is conducted," he added.

Asean is also facing a renewed economic challenge from China, which is shortly to join the World Trade Organisation, thus ensuring access to Western markets for Chinese goods.

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See also:

24 Nov 00 | Business
Asean promises e-commerce boost
22 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Asean trade pact row
15 Nov 00 | Business
Trade clash at Apec summit
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