ASEAN member states are taking steps to become a closer community. Four important documents are to be signed at the upcoming 39th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) meeting in Kuala Lumpur from July 24 to 28.
They are the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Visa Exemption, Framework Document for the Plan of Action to Implement the ASEAN-US Enhanced Partnership, ASEAN-Canada Joint Declaration to Curb International Terrorism and the Instrument of Extension on the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation withFrance.The visa exemption treaty will allow citizens of all the ASEAN states could travel for two weeks within the region without a visa. Other issues on the agenda include the maritime security of the Malacca Straits.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar was optimistic about the ASEAN meeting, and the events following it, such as the Post-Ministerial Conferences, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) as well as meetings with dialogue partners. He told Bernama, “As far I'm concerned, we are very satisfied with the preparations... it is going to be a very successful ASEAN meeting.”
Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo shares similar optimism. Speaking to Channel News Asia, he said that the ASEAN Foreign Ministers will be reviewing the Eminent Persons' Group’s proposals for establishing an ASEAN Charter that is to be presented at the ASEAN Summit in the Philippines at the end of the year. These proposals include that ASEAN leaders “meet more than once a year”, “ASEAN ministers be more ready to take decisions instead of pushing issues to committees”, and “strengthen the ASEAN secretariat with more executive responsibilities”.
Others, though, are more circumspect about ASEAN togetherness. Abdul Razak Baginda, Executive Director of Malaysian Strategic Research Centre noted that unity remains ASEAN’s biggest challenge. ASEAN remained saddled with perennial issues such as territorial disputes, lack of leadership and distrust among its own members.
Malaysian Institute of Economic Research executive director Emeritus Prof Dr Mohamed Ariff also weighed in with criticisms that bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) between individual ASEAN states and other countries “are detrimental to building the ASEAN Economic Community”. According to him, the best way, therefore, was to “multilateralise the whole process so that all countries could benefit because ASEAN economies are progressing at different levels”. He added, “ASEAN collectively signing a FTA with Japan or US is better than individual countries doing it because collectively you have some clout but individually you do not… The US is not interested in signing agreements with Laos or Myanmar, it is only interested in key countries. So these countries cannot participate unless it is done collectively… If you give to US, then give it to all… you are not forced to buy from Japan or US because you have given them some concessions, you will buy from the cheapest source.”ASEAN is in the process of negotiating FTAs with China, India, South Korea and Japan.
ASEAN studying proposal that its leaders meet more than once a year (Channel News Asia, 11 July 2006)
ASEAN To Sign Four Important Documents (Bernama, 11 July 2006)
MIER: Separate FTAs Undermine Asean Spirit (Bernama, 11 July 2006)
Unity – ASEAN’s biggest challenge, says Razak Baginda (Malaysia General News, 11 July 2006)