The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) were confident that their ambitions to forge stronger cooperation with their major East Asian trading partners, China, Japan and South Korea, would remain on track even though they had to deal with lame-duck leaders in their ASEAN Plus Three Summit on Monday.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will soon retire from his post while the unpopular Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will likely lose next month’s election and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak will be ineligible to contest the presidential election in December. However the leaders of ASEAN well know that whoever leads their trading partners, economic cooperation between the two sides will continue to be robust.
Ministers from China, Japan and South Korea were also scheduled to have three-way ministerial talks to establish a free trade area (FTA) during the regional summits here, including a wider summit that involved the participation of the US President Barack Obama.
During their meeting with Premier Wen, the leaders agreed to deepen cooperation in the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) to further increase the efficiency, cooperation and competitiveness of small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
During the summit China also supported Hong Kong becoming a member of the ACFTA as part of a different customs area, and the world’s second-largest economy pledged to support financially the development of infrastructure in the Southeast Asian region.
ASEAN has set aside a fund of US$500 million to develop infrastructure in the region although Malaysia believes it should be at least 10 times larger.
Both parties also agreed to create the ASEAN-China Maritime Cooperation Fund while cooperation in empowerment of various sectors such as hospitals and tourism would be advanced through people-to-people contacts.
In addition to having a summit with Wen, the leaders also met with Prime Minister Noda and President Lee. Later the leaders of the 10-member ASEAN group held a special summit to commemorate the establishment of ASEAN Plus Three (APT) during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
Presidential spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said that during the summit with Noda, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono emphasized that the partnership with Japan had contributed to peace and prosperity in the region.
“Moving forward is how to maximize the potential of both countries as economic powerhouses in each region,” he said, quoting President Yudhoyono. “ASEAN and Japan should also increase trade cooperation and increase cooperation in natural-disaster management as our region is prone to natural disasters.”
Faizasyah said the third issue to be raised was on cooperation between ASEAN and Japan to increase connectivity in the region as well as encouraging people-to-people contacts.
As for the ASEAN-Korea Summit, he said that Indonesia had been appointed as the coordinating country to prepare the presentation to evaluate the cooperation between both parties over the past 15 years, particularly during the huge economic growth of the past two years. “There has been a significant increase in trade of some 26 percent to $124.5 billion,” said the presidential spokesman.
“On the economic front, we want to develop cooperation in SMEs, infrastructure and ICT as well as learning how South Korea implements environmentally friendly technology.”
During the ASEAN Plus Three commemorative summit, Yudhoyono said that the current framework, which was created during the 1997 financial crisis, had to be strengthened by increasing the pooled fund under the Chiang Mai Initiative.
The President also emphasized the importance of reducing the dependence on the IMF so that the Chiang Mai Initiative could be the main framework in the region.
ASEAN Plus Three also continued to push investment and trade as well as connectivity in the region, Faizasyah said.
“Connectivity in the ASEAN Plus Three region is not only applicable in the East Asian region but can also be further widened to other, wider regions,” he said.