Southeast Asia has taken another step towards creating a European-style economic marketplace. A series of anticipated new free-trade agreements could help the region compete with economic powerhouses India and China.
Trade ministers from the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations have advanced plans to create a sprawling new common market encompassing 530 million people.
At a meeting in Jakarta, which ended Sunday, ASEAN-member states set fresh timetables for creating a network of trade agreements with leading economies elsewhere in Asia. Trade ministers now have schedules for free-trade talks with Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. A free-trade deal with China is nearly complete and could be signed as early as November.
The free-trade talks complement ASEAN's plans to ease most trade restrictions among member states by 2020.
Denis Hew of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies says that sort of unified economic community is the only way the region can remain competitive.
"You're seeing a lot of rising competition for foreign investment, particularly from emerging markets like China and India, so the only way you're able to maintain your competitiveness is to integrate your economies to create a single market and production base, so that's what they're trying to do," Mr. Hewsaid.
Plans for the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, or AFTA, were agreed upon last year.
The common market will eliminate tariffs on 11 key industrial sectors within ASEAN, including electronics, agriculture, textiles and rubber.
ASEAN's more-developed economies will implement the cuts by 2007, with all members expected to fall in line by 2012. ASEAN has agreed that by 2020, there will be a free flow of goods, services and investments within the region.
Southeast Asian trade ministers say a common market combined with a network of free-trade agreements should help ASEAN recapture the clout it enjoyed in the 1970's and '80's.