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Southeast Asia's Leaders Call for Faster Asian Economic Integration


Southeast Asian business and government leaders have urged faster regional economic integration to cushion the impact of the global economic downturn. The call comes as leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations gather in Thailand for their annual summit.

With exports from Southeast Asia plummeting, the region's business and government leaders are seeking to bolster trade within Asia to compensate for falling demand in the West.

Trade among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been expanding, but the leaders say there is still room for further growth. It accounts for only a quarter of ASEAN's total trade. ASEAN officials say this trade should increase by 35 to 40 percent in the next six years.

At an ASEAN business and investment meeting in Bangkok Friday, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said this week's Leaders Summit would push harder for the realization of a common market by 2015.

"Already we have seen tremendous growth in intra-ASEAN trade and investment," Mr. Abhisit said. "But the fact of the matter is, we have not done enough and we have to do much, much more."

ASEAN has a combined market of more than 500 million people. In recent years, ASEAN has pushed to expand access for its products within Asia by signing free trade agreements with Japan, China and South Korea - a combined market of about two billion people.

That trading area will further widen to include Australia and New Zealand, which will sign free trade agreements with ASEAN Friday. India is expected to do the same in April.

Narongchai Akrasanee, chairman of the Export-Import Bank of Thailand and the country's former commerce minister, said the global economic crisis would accelerate Asian economic integration as neighbors turn to each other for investment and trade.

"We have so much [foreign currency] reserves in our countries, about $4 trillion, and we talk about using these reserves for our investments, to support our projects, in our land," said Narongchai. "Now circumstances would force us to make use of this."

Earlier this week, ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea agreed to expand a regional fund aimed at helping Asian governments facing liquidity problems.

Arin Jira, the chairman of the ASEAN Business Advisory Council, says although times are difficult, some of the region's top businesses see the current crisis as a chance for the region to lead the global recovery.

"We shall no longer be running around following the other advanced economies," said Arin. "We will lead the world out of this crisis and I think we can do it because we are better cushioned than before."

ASEAN was formed in 1967 to promote political and economic cooperation. Its annual summit opens Saturday in the Thai resort town of Cha-am, 200 kilometers south of the capital.

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