Six southeast Asian nations signed trade agreements on Dec. 16 paving the way for a single market in the region, pressing on with the pacts despite the postponement of a key summit. The economic ministers of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Singapore and Malaysia signed three separate deals covering trade in goods, investment and services.
The agreements liberalize trade in services and grant benefits to investors. The third covers trade in goods. Tariffs on most goods had already been cut to between zero and five percent as part of ASEAN's plan to establish a single market and manufacturing base by 2015.
They had decided to press on with the signing rather than wait for a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that was delayed by recent unrest in Thailand. "As these agreements are integral to ASEAN's economic integration, the ASEAN economic ministers agreed to meet in Singapore to sign and have them enter into force as soon as possible," said Malaysian Trade Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
The three agreements were originally to be signed at the 10-member ASEAN's annual summit in Thailand this month, officials said. Anti-government protests in Thailand, which currently chairs ASEAN, forced that country's former government to move the summit from Bangkok to the northern city of Chiang Mai, and then to postpone it until March. After Thailand's opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was elected on Dec. 15 as the country's new prime minister, the foreign ministry said the summit will be held from February 24-26.
ASEAN has made itself more attractive to foreign investment but, with the world in a credit crunch, the level of foreign investment will fall over the next two years, Trade and Industry, Lim Hng Kiang said. "And if ASEAN cannot portray itself as a more attractive venue I think then we lose out."
Indonesia's Trade Minister Mari Pangestu also stressed the need for ASEAN to forge closer economic ties in light of the global financial crisis. "If the global situation becomes more uncertain, then making regional cooperation and integration work will make you stronger," she added.
Besides the six nations attending the signing ceremony, the other four ASEAN countries -- Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar -- were due to sign at a later date, officials said.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2008