Asian summit to tackle economic crisis

HUA HIN: Asian leaders meet here this weekend to discuss ways to deepen economic ties further in order to sustain the region's rebound from the recent global downturn, diplomats and analysts said.

With parts of the region still reeling from natural disasters, the leaders are also expected to grapple with ways to improve rescue capabilities and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid, they said.

The annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit and related meetings with key regional partners will kick off Friday at this elite beach resort in Thailand amid tight security.

The ASEAN summit involving Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam will be followed by talks with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

Asia's quick rebound from the global recession compared with the United States and other Western economies is expected to set the mood for talks on further freeing up the flow of trade, investment and people across the region.

"Asia is poised to take on a bigger role on the global stage after the dust from the economic crisis has settled," a senior Southeast Asian trade official told AFP.

"Integration is the key to unlocking Asia's full potential. Furthermore, the recovery needs to be sustained for the long term, so the right policies must be put in place early."

Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at the Singapore Management University, said ASEAN's newly ratified charter "provides more accountability on progress for economic integration."

Integration "is one means of buffering the vulnerability of ASEAN toward economic changes globally," Welsh said, adding however that achieving it will be an "uphill battle."

Central to the integration efforts is ASEAN's goal to establish a single market and manufacturing base by 2015, and expanding trade and economic links to include its major regional trading partners such as China and India.

"ASEAN is well on its way to integrate into one regional community by 2015 in line with its charter," the grouping's Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters in Bangkok on Wednesday.

He said that within the past decade, the bloc's combined export value jumped three-fold to 1.7 trillion dollars from 576 billion dollars. Trade within the region of nearly 600 million people also increased four-fold, he said.

In the same period, ASEAN's trade with Japan and the European Union also increased three-fold, with China and Australia it had multiplied 10-fold, and with India it had jumped six-fold, Pitsuwan added.

Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said in remarks published Wednesday that one key issue will be how to increase Southeast Asia's links by air, land, water and information technology with emerging Asian powers China and India.

"If we ASEAN, in our own integration, make sure that our links connect to theirs, not only will ASEAN be linked to China and India -- we'll also link China and India together," Yeo said in an interview with Singapore's Straits Times.

He said the ASEAN leaders will task a group to study the details of expanding the links.

The environment will also be a major topic, with ASEAN leaders expected to issue a statement in support of global talks in Copenhagen in December for a new climate change treaty, other diplomats said.

ASEAN and its partner nations are also expected to issue statements on food security cooperation and disaster management.

As in previous ASEAN summits, military-ruled Myanmar's continued detention of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to come under the spotlight.

A campaign to have her and other political prisoners freed will take on special significance as it coincides with ASEAN's launch during the meeting of a body aimed at promoting human rights in the region, analysts said.

It also comes at a time of a major policy shift by the United States to re-engage the junta despite opposing some of its policies and maintaining sanctions.