Asean to study free trade pact
Asian leaders tackle regional economic integration and N Korea's nuclear ambitions.
Last Modified: 24 Oct 2009 07:12 GMT
Leaders will discuss the goal of economic integration, expected to be realised by 2015 [AFP]

Leaders of East Asian countries are set to work on a feasibility study for a huge free trade zone as part of a broad agenda of a major summit that opened at a Thai beach resort of Hua Hin on Friday.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) conference is being attended by leaders from China, Japan and South Korea, who will be joined by their counterparts from India, Australia and New Zealand on Saturday.

A separate study for a wider economic partnership also covering India, Australia and New Zealand would also be carried out in tandem, said officials.

"We're going to do this two-pronged, meaning in parallel," Vitavas Srivihok, director-general for Asean affairs at the Thai foreign ministry, told the AFP news agency.

"Right now we (Asean) have bilateral free trade agreements with all six countries completely. Now we should explore a feasibility study both in the East Asia Free Trade Area and with (India, Australia and New Zealand)."

Quick rebound

Asia's quick rebound from the global recession compared with the US and other Western economies has prompted calls for the region to increase integration.

According to conference documents, Asean will follow up on China's $25bn initiative to promote infrastructure development in Southeast Asia, Japan's programme on the use of efficient energy and a $100m South Korean project to help the region respond to climate change.

"Asean is still very much a work in progress, I would say, and one of the things you really need if you want to work together is unity - and that seems to be lacking more than ever"

Al Jazeera's Step Vaessen

As at previous summits, a call for North Korea to give up its nuclear programme and return to disarmament talks is expected.

Leaders will also flesh out details on how Asean plans to realise its goal of economic integration by 2015.

Al Jazeera's Sep Vaessen, reporting from the summit, said: "The good thing is that the summit is happening at all because of the two times when it was postponed ... This time it's been all very smooth."

But Asean still has obstacles to overcome if it is to make real progress, our correpondent said.

"Asean is still very much a work in progress, I would say, and one of the things you really need if you want to work together is unity - and that seems to be lacking more than ever," she said.

"There're so many disputes going on - look at Malaysia and Indonesia; [disputes] between Cambodia and Thailand; and also India and China have very bad border disputes going on at the moment.

"They are all involved in the summit here, and if they can't agree between two countries, it's going to be even harder to agree among 10 countries."

Rights panel unveiled

When the summit opened, Asean unveiled the region's first human rights commission, but it was immediately criticised by activists who pointed out that its mandate did not extend to prosecution of violators like Myanmar, an Asean member.

The activists were also angered by the exclusion of several members of civil society from the summit.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai prime minister, described it as "a significant milestone" in the 42-year history of Asean.

The group has traditionally steered clear of rights issues because of its reluctance to meddle in the internal affairs of member nations.

"[The] bad sign was actually the opening ceremony: only five of the 10 leaders showed up for the [event] and maybe this shows the lack of importance they give to this Asean summit," our corrrespondent said.

Al Jazeera and agencies
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