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Ministers Focus on Expanding Free Trade Ahead of Monday's ASEAN Summit - 2004-11-28


Southeast Asian ministers have wrapped up preparations for ASEAN's 10th summit, which starts Monday. Free trade and expanding ties with Asian neighbors China and India are high on the agenda. Meanwhile, ASEAN's business leaders say free trade will not ease commerce, without infrastructure support.

Ministers and business leaders wrapped up meetings in Vientiane Sunday, ready for this year's summit of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN.

There will be a score of deals signed, most focusing on free trade within the bloc. But ASEAN leaders will also meet wit six other major Asian economies: China, India, Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

The goal is to create European Union-style integration by 2010.

China will sign a free trade agreement at the summit, creating the world's largest free trade zone in the next six years.

Negotiations are starting with India, and talks with the other four countries are slated for next year.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi Sunday told the business community that intra-ASEAN trade alone is not the key in this global environment; China and India are indispensable to spur trade and investment in the region.

He said, "The underlying objective is to generate more opportunities in trade and investment for both domestic and foreign investors."

Leaders of the four poorest ASEAN nations, Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam, and Laos, agreed Sunday to forge stronger economic links to narrow the development gap with their wealthier neighbors.

Laos government Spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy said, "[We] called upon the ASEAN members to renew more effective assistance and support for the … countries, in accelerating implementation of the initiatives of ASEAN integration to ensure sustainable benefits to ASEAN members."

Business delegates finished their meetings Sunday, warning that free trade agreements alone will not enhance commerce. They are stressing that more attention be paid to improving roads and transportation and standardizing customs rules and regulations.

Meanwhile, ASEAN lawmakers meeting in Kuala Lumpur have called for military-ruled Burma to be suspended and denied the 2006 rotating chairmanship, until it make serious moves toward democracy and improving human rights.

ASEAN has a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of member nations, and has not placed Burma's political situation on the agenda.

However, officials say that Burma and other thorny issues like Thailand's unrest in the mostly-Muslim southern part of the country may be taken up unofficially during the two days of meetings.

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