Saturday, April 30, 2005

Regional leaders set their focus on greater integration

South China Morning Post

Nov 14, 2002

By Frank-Jurgen Richter and Thang Nguyen

ASEAN summit emphasizes the need for stronger co-operation between nations to ensure prosperity.

When Asian leaders gathered for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Phnom Penh last week, the need for a more integrated and co-operative Asia was a key point on the agenda.

Leaders from Japan, South Korea, India and China met the ASEAN heads and discussed and signed joint declarations on the most pressing issues facing the region at the moment - among which are regional integration, economic co-operation and security.

On the economic front, the need for more co-operation between Asian economies for freer trade was evident at the summit. Regional giants China, India and Japan signed separate trade and economic partnership agreements with ASEAN - which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

With its market size and relatively cheap labor force, China's entry into the World Trade Organization has appeared to be an economic threat to its neighbors. While this notion seems logical, it is also fair to say its entry has made Asian countries realize they have to do more to make their economies more competitive.

"I do not subscribe to this theory that China is a competitor," Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said during the summit. "We have entered a new age of partnership. We will walk together and advance together."

ASEAN countries have every reason to link up with China, Korea, Japan or India. However, until there is an integrated ASEAN, any economic co-operation with other industrialized countries in the region will be jeopardized because underdeveloped economies will hold back the developed ones.

"They (ASEAN countries) have to recognize the need for regional economic integration on an urgent basis ... the sooner the better," said retiring ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino. "It's not easy, but they just have to do it."

On the political front, leaders also called for more co-operation to manage security threats. An encouraging event was the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, aimed at avoiding further conflicts between China and other claimants to the area - namely, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Taking place shortly after the tragedies in Bali and the Philippine cities of Zamboanga and Quezon, the fight against terrorism was undoubtedly the key non-economic item on the agenda.

Following the ASEAN Declaration on Joint Action to Counter Terrorism, which was adopted in Brunei in November last year, the member countries agreed to co-operate more with one another and the international community in the fight against terror.

As the region struggles to deal with the global geopolitical and economic uncertainties, the need for a more integrated, co-operative Asia is indeed now greater than ever.

The summit leaders' actions and commitment will be proof that Asia is a region that, if more integrated, will be ever stronger and more prosperous. The World Economic Forum's East Asia economic summit next year in Singapore will focus on Asian integration.

Frank-Jurgen Richter is director for Asia and Thang Nguyen is regional manager for Asia of the World Economic Forum.


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