Byline: GENALYN D. KABILING
VIENTIANE, Laos (Via PLDT) Southeast Asian leaders and their dialogue partners from China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand converge today at the opening of the two-day regional summit here to firm up free trade talks and bolster security.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also plans to fast track aspirations for a European-style single production base and market of 500 million people, with a free flow of goods, services, and investments in the region, by 2020.
The regional grouping will hold talks with the leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea to expand the depth and scope of economic cooperation.
The ASEAN group, composed of the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos, is expected to adopt the Vientiane Action Program, where they will quicken the pace of the comprehensive integration of ASEAN by narrowing development gap, reducing socio-economic disparities, and eradicating poverty within the group.
They are expected to affirm their commitment to generate their own indigenous resources and build a vibrant network of competitive priority sectors such as wood, rubber, automotive, textile, electronics, agriculture, information technology, fisheries, health care, air travel, and tourism.
Agriculture and tourism will be the two leading industry sectors to promote ASEAN economic integration.
During the summit, the emerging large economy China will also seal a landmark free trade deal with the 10-member ASEAN with a market of nearly two billion people by 2010.
President Arroyo urged the ASEAN member nations and their respective business communities to stick with the 2020 timetable for the ASEAN economic integration and later expand the bloc to include Japan, China, and Korea.
In a speech before the delegates to the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit, the President pushed for the formation of an East Asian regional economic bloc in the near future, a single market of almost two billion people.
"In a region where poverty is a common enemy in the midst of rapid but uneven development, ASEANs response is the full integration of East Asia and strong linkages with the rest of the world," she said. "The only way we can spread the benefits of development more evenly and rapidly among us and to stand our own is through expanded ASEAN economic integration," she added.
Arroyo said the enlarged East Asian bloc can secure not only the future of the developing and lessdeveloped countries in ASEAN, but also the future of China, Japan, and Korea as economic leaders in the Pacific century.
Arroyo, an US-educated economist, urged the ASEAN business leaders to welcome expanded ASEAN economic integration because it will give more developed countries the responsibility to help improve the quality of life of less developed and developing countries by increasing per capita income.
An increased income will enhance the purchasing power of all citizens in the ASEAN community and effect a larger market for products and services of these more developed countries, she added.
Arroyo emphasized the importance of the active involvement of the private sector and industry stakeholders, not only from the government, to achieve an economically integrated East Asia.
"If ASEAN realizes the single market by AFTA in advance, this will lead to the birth of a mega-market which can be said as the second China and become the foundation by which the new division-of-work relation is developed in East Asia," she said.
Arroyo said ASEAN must make sure that Japan, Korea, and China find it convenient to join its economic bloc than other emerging trading groups.
"The more we delay the AFTA, the less we will be less competitive in the East Asia economic integration. It is important that within 15 years, it will happen," she said. …