U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab says Southeast Asian nations cannot go on with business as usual as long as Burma fails to enact reforms. Her remarks came as she joined officials of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, in Singapore Monday at the grouping's annual summit.
The issue of Burma's massive violent crackdown on unarmed demonstrators is not on the summit's official agenda, but has overshadowed meetings here. U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab had lunch with ministers from the ten nations of ASEAN and said she expressed U.S. concerns about the situation in Burma.
Ambassador Schwab told VOA that ASEAN has, in her words, a special responsibility when it comes to Burma.
"I think the key is business as usual just doesn't cut it. The bottom line is that business as usual just isn't going to solve the problems that are faced and as I discussed with my ASEAN colleagues, the situation in Burma is really undermining the reputation and the credibility of ASEAN as an organization."
ASEAN officials have rejected calls by the United States for tougher action by Burma's neighbors for reforms in the impoverished country, which has been under harsh military rule since 1962. In remarks this week, the organization's secretary-general rejected U.S. calls for ASEAN to threaten Burma with expulsion, indicating the decision on that should be left to nations in the region.
Nonetheless, the United States continues to seek expansion of its already massive trade ties to the ten countries of ASEAN whose combined economy totals one trillion dollars.
Member nations are due to sign a charter on Tuesday, putting ASEAN on track for a region-wide free trade zone by the year 2015. Ambassador Schwab says this would present a good opportunity for U.S. trade.
"We're supportive whether we're inside or outside these free trade agreements because we believe they facilitate development and facilitate global trade. In terms of ASEAN integration itself and the charter and the objectives, we believe it is in ASEAN's interests just as it is in the interest of the United States to see a further and ultimately full ASEAN economic integration. "
The United States has a free trade agreement with Singapore and is in discussions for trade expansion with other ASEAN nations including Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Discussions on a free trade deal with Thailand are on hold pending the country's return to democratic rule following last year's military coup.