Meetings of Southeast Asian leaders and their dialogue partners have ended with a pledge to build a more flexible economic community that is less dependent on the United States. There were also some hopeful signs of political change in military-run Burma.
Representatives form 16 countries wrapped up three days of meetings on regional cooperation in which they agreed East Asia needs a new economic structure that is less dependent on exports to the United States.
The Association of Southeast Nations has 10 members - Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam - which met with dialogue partners Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea for an East Asia Summit.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said the 16 nations discussed establishing an East Asia free-trade agreement. He said they also heard proposals by Japan and Australia for building a wider asian bloc.
Japan has indicated it wants the United States to play a strong role in the region, perhaps as a member of the pan-Asian bloc.
But, Mr. Abhisit said Japan was merely stressing the need for a continuing evolution in East Asian ties. "What important for us is that we move in the right direction, that we keep our minds open to suggestions and that we will move in a practical and pragmatic way to most effectively address whatever challenges are posed to the region as a whole," he said.
One of ASEAN's ongoing challenges has been dealing with the embarrassment of member Burma's human-rights abuses.
Burma's military government does not tolerate dissent and has kept democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi locked up for most of the pst two decades.
But Mr. Abhisit said Burma's Prime Minister Thein Sein indicated Aung San Suu Kyi may be allowed to play a role in Burma's politics. "He briefed us on some of the dialogue that is taking place and he feels optimistic that she can also contribute to the process of reconciliation," he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi recently offered to help Burma's military government get sanctions against it lifted.
The United States has changed its Burma policy to include not just sanctions, but also dialogue and is sending diplomats to Burma in the coming weeks.
Japanese officials earlier quoted Thein Sein as telling ASEAN leaders some of the restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi could be lifted if she behaved. It was not clear what Burma's military government wants from the Nobel prize winner.
The annual meetings of Southeast Asian leaders and their dialogue partners inaugurated the region's first human-rights body, which could take up the Burma issue.
But the ASEAN intergovernmental commission on human rights does not have the power to punish rights violators, a weakness that rights groups heavily criticized. They also criticized ASEAN's unwillingness to take a firmer stand on Burma.
Also on Sunday, ASEAN signed a series of agreements with China on standards, regulations, and protection of intellectual property rights.
ASEAN signed more than 40 agreements throughout the weekend, including some on expanding trade, fighting climate change, improving food security and emergency response to natural disasters.
Thailand will officially turn over the hosting of ASEAN meetings to Vietnam at the end of this year.