ASEAN leaders agree to form a tighter bloc

REGIONAL SUMMIT: Leaders of the member nations signed a counterterrorism pact and a host of other agreements designed to strengthen ties between the 10 nations

AP , CEBU, PHILIPPINES

Sun, Jan 14, 2007 - Page 1

Southeast Asian leaders agreed at their annual summit yesterday to create a tighter political bloc, turn their region into a free-trade zone by 2015 and fight harder against terrorism and poverty.

In a major break with the bloc's consensus-based past, the 10-nation body has agreed to discuss a plan that would form a more cohesive organization able to sanction or even expel members that do not follow its rules.

The leaders also signed a counterterrorism pact legally binding their countries to share information and allowing for joint training aimed at stemming terror and cross-border crime. They agreed on the protection of millions of migrant workers and vowed to shift their energy use from fossil to biofuels.

The summit's host, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, stressed the need to bolster free trade within ASEAN, which was created in 1967.

"ASEAN is committed to expanding its trade forum to become the largest in the world," Arroyo said in opening the meeting, held under heavy security following three deadly explosions in the southern Philippines days before.

The leaders want to establish the free-trade zone by 2015, five years earlier than previously proposed.

It will be adopted in two stages, with the six richer nations -- such as wealthy Singapore and oil-rich Brunei -- starting the integration in 2010, and the others following by 2015.

China, Japan and South Korea -- which will be participating in an expanded summit today involving ASEAN's six "dialogue partners" -- hope to join the Southeast Asian grouping's economic circle.

The other dialogue partners are Australia, New Zealand and India.

Challenge

Implementing the objectives will be a challenge.

"Up until now, we have never had a charter," said former Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas, a member of the "Eminent Persons Group" that drafted the recommendations. "We will see how the implementation will go."

No date for the charter has been set, but ASEAN is aiming to have something to present at its next summit, scheduled to be held in Singapore at the end of this year.

Southeast Asian countries have long voiced support for a joint charter, but the proposed addition of formal votes -- instead of consensus -- and the possibility of sanctions or expulsion was likely to be a hard one to swallow, particularly for the ruling military junta in ASEAN member Myanmar.

Terrorism is another pressing problem -- one underscored by violence in the host country.

The Philippines was on high alert for the summit, preceded by three bombings that killed seven people in the country's strife-torn south.

More than 8,000 police and soldiers have been mobilized where the summit is being held, in the central Philippine port of Cebu. Security was tight.

But protesters broke through a police cordon on Friday and headed toward one of the main summit venues before being stopped and arrested. Another large protest was held yesterday, with demonstrators burning effigies of Arroyo, US President George W. Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.