ASEAN launches charter under shadow of crisis

Mon Dec 15, 2008 11:28pm IST
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By Olivia Rondonuwu and Harry Suhartono

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Southeast Asian foreign ministers met on Monday to implement a charter setting up a bloc of half a billion people, but hopes of building a European Union-style community may be blown off course by the global economic crisis.

Often dismissed as a talking shop, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed the charter in November 2007 with the aim of creating an economically, socially and politically integrated bloc by 2015.

But even without the impact of the credit crunch, political turbulence in some of the eclectic grouping of nations ranging from highly developed Singapore to Laos, a poor landlocked communist state, makes the task look increasingly tough.

Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said there was a danger the region could face protectionist pressures.

"It's true in nature that all countries now find that protectionist tendency is coming stronger because of the crisis, but that's all the more important to think of the trade agenda in the process to counter this protectionist force," said Yeo, who joined other ministers in a polite toast of the new charter.

But analysts said the charter faced too many obstacles right now in the diverse region of 560 million people.

"For the time being, it will be better to postpone the discussion and preparation towards economic integration, because now the more important thing is how they can support one another to be able to come out of this crisis with minimum damage," said Enrico Tanuwidjaja, an economist at OCBC Bank in Singapore.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said a finance ministers' meeting should be held by January, possibly in Bali, to discuss the Chiang Mai Initiative, a $118 billion network of bilateral currency swaps between ASEAN and its dialogue partners China, Japan and South Korea.  Continued...