Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have opened their annual summit in Brunei, pledging to cooperate in fighting international terrorism. The ASEAN leaders also met with the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea, to increase cooperation with them.
While much of the ASEAN conference will be dedicated to trade, the 10 ASEAN leaders began Monday by adopting a declaration expressing unequivocal condemnation of the September 11 attacks in the United States. The declaration also rejects linking terrorism to any religion or race.
The declaration does not refer to the U.S. led attacks in Afghanistan, now in their fifth week. Malaysia proposed calling for an end to the bombing in Afghanistan, while Indonesia called for a humanitarian pause. Two other members, Philippines and Singapore, support the offensive, while several other members say they are neutral.
To address the terrorism threat, the ASEAN leaders promised to strengthen cooperation among their law enforcement agencies, share intelligence, and restrict the funding and movement of terrorists. Malaysia will host a special ASEAN conference on terrorism next April.
The ASEAN delegates also met with the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea. They discussed ways to lift trade barriers and improve economic integration among ASEAN and East Asia's three largest economies.
ASEAN Secretary-General Rudolfo Severino told VOA that such cooperation is logical. "The cultural and political linkages built over the years, historical affinity, cultural affinity, as well as geographic proximity make it natural for ASEAN to work together," he said.
China and ASEAN are discussing forming a free trade area in 10 years. Doing so would create a market of nearly two billion people, with a combined gross domestic product of nearly $2 trillion a year.
ASEAN economies have been hard hit by the global economic downturn. Exports and tourism revenues have declined markedly and several member nations are on the brink of recession. Their leaders are looking to China, whose economic growth has been relatively unscathed, to provide a market for their exports.
The leaders of China, Japan and South Korea also met Monday morning. They agreed to build closer ties through regular consultations among their trade, finance and foreign ministers.
They also appear to have mended a rift that emerged earlier this year. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi angered China and South Korea when he visited a shrine dedicated to Japanese war dead and his government approved a textbook that critics said whitewashed Japanese military atrocities during World War II.
In addition, South Korean officials say President Kim Dae Jung is proposing at the meeting that ASEAN, China, Japan and Korea form a new trade and cooperation group.
ASEAN leaders agreed to upgrade their response to the region's growing AIDS epidemic. They promised to cooperate better on prevention and treatment, and called for the creation of a global health fund to provide AIDS victims in poor countries with access to expensive medicines.