Terrorism, free trade and North Korea are just a few of the issues expected to come up at the summit of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cebu, in the Philippines, which starts December 10. As Douglas Bakshian in Manila reports, the ASEAN leaders also must consider a new more formal structure for the organization.
The war on terror is a sensitive issue in Southeast Asia, where the regional Islamic terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah is blamed for a series of deadly bombings. Members of the group are believed to be in the Philippines.
At this year's summit of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations in the Philippines, the ASEAN leaders are expected to announce either a declaration on counterterrorism or a more legally binding convention.
The plan would allow the 10 ASEAN countries to exchange information to better track suspected terrorists.
Medardo Abad Jr., of the ASEAN secretariat, says the proposed Convention on Counter-Terrorism is a major step forward.
"As drafted, the A.C.C.T. (ASEAN Convention on Counter Terrorism) would make it an obligation for member countries to extend mutual legal assistance in criminal matters," he explained, " including extradition or prosecution of perpetrators of terrorist acts. As an instrument of judicial and criminal law, it will identify criminal acts of terrorism in accordance with U.N. conventions and protocols relating to terrorism."
Another big item at the summit is the framework for an ASEAN charter, which would give the organization a stronger legal basis and better allow it to enforce its agreements. This is an important internal change for the group, and would allow it to punish members who do not follow the rules.
"At the moment, when we do not have a charter, we come up with a lot of these declarations, agreements, conventions and so on. But it is difficult to enforce these documents because we are not a rules-based organization," said Luis Cruz, who oversees ASEAN issues in the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs. "But once we are rules-based then it would be easier to enforce it because there would be sanctions if you do not measure up to the agreement."
In its early years, ASEAN had only six members and ran on a consensus basis, with all members agreeing on proposals. But the group is now in its 39th year, with 10 members of widely different levels of wealth and development, so it requires more formal organization.
The charter framework will be offered by a group of former senior government officials, the Eminent Persons Group. If the outline is finalized, member states could agree on it by the end of next year.
The ASEAN leaders at the summit also are expected to endorse a plan to speed up regional integration and create a common market by 2015, instead of 2020, as originally planned. This would allow the free flow of goods, services and investment across the region so it can better compete in the global economy.
Ramon Kabigting, of the Philippine Bureau of International Trade Relations, says this is crucial for ASEAN to profit from globalization, rather than be pushed aside by it.
"It is a phenomenon called globalization. It affects all of us," he said. "And it just depends on how well we play the game so that we can derive from it the greatest possible benefits for our citizenry. And ASEAN's free-trade area, AFTA is one such mechanism to help us achieve this goal of navigating through globalization."
Another headline issue to come up at the summit is North Korea's nuclear program.
ASEAN wants the resumption of the six-party talks (Japan, China, South Korea, the United States, Russian and North Korea) on ending Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. President Gloria Arroyo has offered to hold the talks in the Philippines.
Other sensitive issues in the region include the military takeover in Thailand and human rights violations in Burma. ASEAN is under pressure from such key trading partners as the United States and European Union to push Burma's military government to allow democratic reforms.
These are not on the agenda but officials say they could be taken up in the summit retreat, in which leaders can informally discuss any issue they wish. Officials say the process of taking up sensitive subjects at the retreat avoids embarrassing ASEAN members by confronting them in public.
ASEAN was established in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Brunei joined in 1984 and the remaining four members, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Cambodia joined in the 1990's.