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ASEAN to Establish Trading Bloc - 2003-10-06


Ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, are converging amid heavy security on the Indonesian island of Bali Monday for discussions on free trade and new measures to combat terrorism. Members have already drafted a 10-year plan on creating a European-style trading bloc.

Almost exactly one year after the devastating nightclub bombings on Bali that killed more than 200 people, leaders from the Association of South East Asian Nations have drawn up plans to create a trading bloc along similar lines to the European Union.

The ministers are hoping such an agreement will accelerate economic integration between the 500 million people who live in Southeast Asia. The original aim was to produce a free-trade area that will cover the region by 2020, although some countries are pushing for an earlier start-date.

The project has been around for some time, but it has been given added urgency by the rapid emergence of the Chinese economy, which has proved a more attractive destination for foreign investment than many South East Asian economies.

A recent report by the McKinsey group says that unless ASEAN nations can agree to work together, scrapping barriers to trade and offering investors easy access to the entire region regardless of where they are based, China is going to continue to be a more attractive proposition to business.

The leaders of China, India, Japan and South Korea, which are not members, are also going to attend the leaders conference to be held on Tuesday and Wednesday. ASEAN is keen to sign bilateral trade deals with other countries to increase the effectiveness of any future trade grouping.

The detention by ASEAN-member Burma of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has threatened to draw attention away from the trade talks. Aung San Suu Kyi has been in what the Burmese authorities call "protective custody" since her convoy was attacked by a pro-government convoy on May 30.

Fellow ASEAN countries have been significantly more vocal than normal in their criticism of Rangoon, threatening to disrupt the normally smooth diplomatic relations of the region.

Burma said Monday that it would release Aung San Suu Kyi at what it described as "an appropriate time".

The trade talks come at a crucial juncture for Southeast Asia. The region is recovering from the financial crisis of the late 1990s, but is facing new threats to its prosperity, including the global economic slowdown, and terrorism. The decision to hold the talks in Bali, the scene of Asia's worst terrorist attack, underlines the importance of the cooperative effort to confront the challenges.

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