Southeast Asian ministers hope to fast-track plans to create a European-style single market by 2015 in talks in Malaysia this week, as the region struggles to strengthen its economic muscle to counter competition from rising giants China and India.
During a five-day meeting starting today, ministers from ASEAN also plan to sign a pact to facilitate trade and investment with the US -- a step short of a free trade agreement but signaling stronger linkages with its No.1 trading partner, officials say.
The ASEAN ministers will meet counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand to narrow differences in free trade negotiations, and seek especially to revive stalled talks with India.
The 39-year-old bloc began liberalizing trade in goods in 1993. It aims to fuse into a single market and production base by 2020 to allow free flow of goods as well as services and investment across the region.
However, some members want the ASEAN Economic Community, or AEC, to be realized by 2015 to ensure the region stays competitive. The AEC does not include a single currency system.
"We need to muster political will to create the AEC by 2015, instead of 2020," ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong said.
"Competition is for real now. More and more attractive investment locations are coming up, not only in China and India but elsewhere in the world," he said. "If we want to be in the marathon race, we cannot stop for too long and say time out, we need a massage on our feeble legs. We've got to keep on pushing."
Barriers in ASEAN to the flow of goods and services and restrictive business practices still hinder growth in the region, which has a market of more than 530 million people, but accounts for only 6 percent of world exports, officials said.
The bloc groups Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.
Malaysian Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz said ASEAN ministers would identify ways to accelerate the AEC to 2015, including removing non-tariff barriers and quickening the pace of service sector liberalization.
"It's more important for us to make ASEAN a seamless production and export base in terms of policy and administration. Otherwise, ASEAN will continue to be fragmented," she said.
Speeding up regional integration takes on a renewed urgency as ASEAN struggles to be in the driver's seat of East Asian integration.
Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshihiro Nikai will call for a massive pan-Asian free trade area involving ASEAN, Australia, China, South Korea, India, Japan and New Zealand at the meeting this week.
The minister is expected to offer a US$100 million fund to promote the proposed zone, which has a combined population of 3.1 billion people and a GDP of almost US$10 trillion, Japanese officials told the Indonesian news agency Bernama over the weekend.
The goal, however, is difficult to achieve because of the region's many rivalries.
ASEAN ministers plan to seal a Trade and Investment Facilitation Arrangement with the US that will bring in new funds for regional projects and spur investor confidence, officials said.
Myanmar's poor human rights record has previously hindered ASEAN's trade ties with Washington, which imposes sanctions on Yangon.
Ong said the pact is being called an arrangement, rather than a more formal agreement, to overcome sensitivities toward Myanmar and allow Washington to sign it without congressional approval.