JAKARTA (Reuters) - Southeast Asian foreign ministers met on Monday to implement a charter setting up a bloc of half a billion people, but hopes of building a European Union-style community may be blown off course by the global economic crisis.
Often dismissed as a talking shop, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed the charter in November 2007 with the aim of creating an economically, socially and politically integrated bloc by 2015.
But even without the impact of the credit crunch, political turbulence in some of the eclectic grouping of nations ranging from highly developed Singapore to Laos, a poor landlocked communist state, makes the task look increasingly tough.
Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said there was a danger the region could face protectionist pressures.
“It’s true in nature that all countries now find that protectionist tendency is coming stronger because of the crisis, but that’s all the more important to think of the trade agenda in the process to counter this protectionist force,” said Yeo, who joined other ministers in a polite toast of the new charter.
But analysts said the charter faced too many obstacles right now in the diverse region of 560 million people.
“For the time being, it will be better to postpone the discussion and preparation towards economic integration, because now the more important thing is how they can support one another to be able to come out of this crisis with minimum damage,” said Enrico Tanuwidjaja, an economist at OCBC Bank in Singapore.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said a finance ministers’ meeting should be held by January, possibly in Bali, to discuss the Chiang Mai Initiative, a $118 billion network of bilateral currency swaps between ASEAN and its dialogue partners China, Japan and South Korea.
Indonesian Trade Minister Mari Pangestu said trade agreements on goods, services and investment would be signed at a meeting of ASEAN economic ministers in Singapore on Tuesday.
But she said ASEAN trade deals between Australia-New Zealand and India would not be signed until a summit next year.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
While the EU and organisations such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) have created major trading blocs, ASEAN has lagged behind.
Marking an inauspicious start, the ASEAN charter was supposed to be unveiled at a summit in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai this month, but a heightening of a three-year political crisis in Bangkok meant Indonesia stepped in to host a meeting of foreign ministers.
A new summit could be held in Thailand, the group’s chair, between Feb 24-26, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said, although there appears to be no swift end in sight to the Thai crisis, pitting Bangkok’s royal and military elites against supporters of ousted and exiled leader Thaksin Shinawatra.
On Monday, at least 200 supporters of the previous administration blocked access to parliament and threw bricks at cars of some MPs after opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva won a thin majority in a vote to become prime minister.
The ASEAN charter, which member states had to ratify, was held up by objections over human rights from members such as the Philippines, which has been a strong critic of the Myanmar junta for its continued detention of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
Indonesia’s foreign minister said he hoped the establishment of a human rights body under the charter would be completed this year and the terms of reference submitted in July. It looks doubtful, however, whether the body will have real teeth given the charter’s commitment to the ASEAN mantra of non-interference.
The EU said it particularly welcomed the Charter’s promotion of democracy and human rights.
Additional reporting by Gde Arka Anugrah, Tyagita Silka and Sonya Angraini and David Brunnstrom in Brussels