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ASEAN Prepares for Summit; Terrorism Issues Likely to Dominate - 2001-11-02

Leaders from 13 Asian nations are gathering in Brunei for Monday's opening of the two-day summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. During the summit, the ASEAN leaders are expected to discuss forming a free trade area with China, Japan and South Korea. But international terrorism is likely to dominate the proceedings.

Leaders of the 10 member ASEAN group are meeting amid rising concern the U.S.-led strikes on Afghanistan are angering the region's large Muslim population.

ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino said he expects the leaders to look at pragmatic ways to counter terrorism. "They'll (ASEAN leaders) be trying to work out measures to cooperate in combating transnational terrorism, including the exchange of intelligence, financial measures to make sure that the funding available for these activities is reduced, and cooperation among law enforcement agencies," he said.

The regional leaders are expected to strongly condemn the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11. But they are not likely to be enthusiastic about the U.S. led strikes against reported terrorist targets in Afghanistan.

While ASEAN members have condemned the September 11 attacks on the United States, some, most notably Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, have criticized the strikes in Afghanistan. They have called for a halt in the fighting. Philippines President Gloria Arroyo, who has expressed the staunchest support for the U.S. response, has proposed that ASEAN leaders adopt a regional pact against terrorism.

Ms. Arroyo said at a recent conference in Hong Kong that there are links between fanaticism and poverty. She called on the international community to apply the same effort in the war on poverty as in the war on terrorism. "This unprecedented cooperation and coalition building at the national, regional and global level to ensure security and safety could work equally well to ensure economic security, which globalization has both provided and at the same time threatened," she said.

The ASEAN head Mr. Severino noted the terrorist attacks and the economic downturn have hurt the region's exports, tourism and investor confidence.

He said ASEAN's response should be to accelerate economic integration. "These are times of trouble, not only for ASEAN, but [also] for many other countries around the world," he said. "And it is important for ASEAN to move faster and deeper into regional economic integration and to cooperate more closely. And that is what this summit will be all about."

At this meeting, Mr. Severino expects more steps to create a regional free trade zone as well as declarations on information technology and AIDS.

At this year's annual ASEAN gathering, there will be meetings on the sidelines with Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung.

The contacts with the leaders of Asia's three largest economies come as expectations build that ASEAN wants to create a free trade area in the region in the next decade. This could become the world's largest free trade area, with nearly two billion people and a combined annual gross domestic product of nearly $2 trillion.