Asean, partners discuss trade bloc scheme

PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — SOUTHEAST Asian foreign ministers met yesterday with their counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea to discuss the creation of an East Asian economic community and progress in encouraging North Korea to wind down its nuclear weapons program.

North Korea’s recent concessions have eased tensions across Asia, but the ministers were clearly focused on ending the threat posed by a rogue regime’s possession of nuclear weapons—and the possibility that they could end up in terrorists’ hands or spark a regional arms race.

A day after resolving one sticky issue by reaching consensus on establishing a regional human rights commission over the objections of Myanmar, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations met with their northeast Asian counterparts to tackle efforts to improve political, security and economic cooperation.

A long-discussed proposal for an East Asian trade bloc, first suggested by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, was to be reviewed during the two-hour session, along with financial cooperation with growing economic giant China, which also is attending the Asean Regional Forum, the area’s largest security meeting.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called for greater efforts to improve the region’s economy and internal unity.

“Economic development in our region is still unbalanced and some countries still lag behind in economic and social development,” he said. “The overall competitiveness of East Asia needs to be enhanced.”

Yang did not mention any countries specifically, but even as economic growth has surged in Vietnam, Singapore and China, nations like Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia are badly lagging behind, partially because of social and political problems.

Still, much of the focus was on ensuring that North Korea doesn’t backslide in its commitments—made during six-nation talks that also involved the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia—to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs in exchange for aid and other concessions. North Korea has frequently broken such agreements after using them as a starting point for further talks.

The ministers were likely to issue a joint statement praising North Korea for shutting down its Yongbyon nuclear facility while urging it to work toward denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. They also were expected to call attention to North Korea’s humanitarian needs and urge the reclusive country to honor basic human rights.

Japan said its priorities were on North Korea and peace-building efforts in Southeast Asia, focusing on troubled East Timor and the Philippines’ restive southern Mindanao region. Japan wants the ministers’ final statement to mention past abductions of its citizens by North Korea, while South Korea—apparently trying to avoid upsetting the North at a sensitive time—said the issue shouldn’t be mentioned.

Myanmar is likely to be happy to have attention shift away after facing strong pressure from its neighbors to free Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and speed up democratic reforms amid increasing frustration with its military junta.

The Asean agreed Monday to set up a regional human rights commission despite fierce resistance from Myanmar, whose rights record has been a constant problem for the regional group.

Asean has repeatedly said it hopes to encourage democratic reforms through “constructive engagement” with the junta, but it has made little tangible progress, tarnishing the group’s reputation.