The 10-member ASEAN probably will not reach a free-trade agreement with the US, ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong said in Singapore yesterday.
"I don't think we can have an FTA with the US," Ong said. "The US is terribly distracted by other things, especially in the Middle East."
The US signed a trade and investment framework agreement with ASEAN last August that was aimed at boosting economic ties with the region and possibly leading to a free-trade deal in the future.
"At some point, we could build toward an ASEAN-wide FTA," Susan Schwab, the US trade representative, said in an interview published in Singapore's Straits Times newspaper yesterday. "I do not think any of us has ruled that out. But at this stage of the game, it is premature talking about it."
The US-ASEAN ties are not at a low point even though top US representatives are skipping two major ASEAN-initiated events in the next few weeks, Ong said.
Support from the US, ASEAN's largest source of foreign direct investment, is crucial for the region's political stability, he said.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will not attend a key security and foreign policy meeting with ASEAN in Manila next week, Ong said.
He also confirmed that US President George W. Bush will miss a meeting of the 10 ASEAN leaders in Singapore in September.
Meanwhile, a free-trade agreement with China is on track to be completed in 2010, and officials are attempting to complete a chapter on investment by this year that would create the world's largest free-trade area, Ong said.
ASEAN is aiming to create its own free trade area, or AFTA, by 2010, with EU-style economic, but no currency, integration by 2015.
ASEAN ministers will meet in Manila this week to try to agree on a legal and binding charter on their members' conduct, a document that also calls for the promotion of human rights and democracy.
Ong said that the draft of the document is 90 percent complete.
It will not include a provision for sanctions on its members, he said.
Formed in 1967, ASEAN's annual GDP is worth around US$1 trillion.