Asia’s Top Ministers Finish 2002 Summits

Closing high-level talks where terrorism was a key focus, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced late Tuesday that next year’s Asean Summit would be held in an unlikely place: Bali, Indonesia, where terrorist bombings killed nearly 200 people less than three weeks ago.

Hun Sen, acting as chair of this year’s summit, closed a three-day series of meetings between the leaders of 14 Asian countries by assuring reporters that “what happened [in Bali] will not repeat.”

Indonesia, next on an alphabetical rotation of Asean chairs, will be in charge of next year’s summits.

During this year’s summit, top leaders discussed terrorism, regional security, economic cooperation and tourism, and signed a landmark agreement on the conduct of countries in the South China Sea.

In a flurry of last-minute press conferences, several Asean leaders joined Hun Sen in addressing specific regional issues.

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo praised the formulation of a non-conflict policy in the South China Sea, one of the heftiest agreements to come out of this week. Arroyo said the South China Sea Agreement between Asean and China had turned the region’s most volatile flash point into a new avenue for prosperity.

“This document should give our people peace of mind,” said Arroyo, adding that the agreement on conduct in the South China Sea would allow signatories to switch their focus from defense policies to social and economic development.

China, Taiwan and Asean members Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam all lay claim to the Spratly Islands, which are believed to sit on rich oil and gas deposits.

Japan signed a declaration with Asean on Tuesday that pledged closer economic cooperation.

Prime Minister Junichiro Ko­izumi said in a news conference Tuesday the agreement would “accelerate” economic development between the countries. He also said that Japan and Asean would collaborate on a series of cultural, political and other exchanges in 2003.

Koizumi also assured reporters that Japan remained committed to the normalization of relations between North Korea and South Korea, as well as Japan.

“We expressed appreciation for Prime Minister Koizumi’s recent success in helping to foster the historic Pyongyang [North Korea] Declaration, and encouraged further dialogue between Japan and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Hun Sen said.

Pyongyang’s recent revelation that it was proceeding with its nuclear program has occupied a key position in the two-day 8th Asean Summit meeting’s with China, Japan, South Korea and India.

“Asean and the Republic of Korea reiterated their concerns about the nuclear weapons program of [North Korea],” Hun Sen said.

Aside from talks of the North, South Korea’s Prime Minister Kim Suk Soo also assured Asean of his country’s full support in the region’s anti-terrorism efforts and agreed to work toward greater economic ties between the two parties with the ultimate goal of an East Asia Free Trade Area, Hun Sen said.

South Korea has contributed to the development of Asean through trade and the development of human resources, as well as through tourism and contributions of informational technology and health care, Hun Sen said.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said separately on Tuesday that the China-Asean agreements will not be totally beneficial for the Asean countries.

“China, as you all know, is capable of producing a lot of very high quality goods at a very low price that could compete with those of Southeast Asia, and because of this in our discussions it was accepted that we may have exclusivity in order to take care of those sensitive products which might suffer from China’s introduction to the Asean markets,” he said during a news conference on Tuesday, adding that China might push out some of the Asean goods.

He echoed criticisms of warnings by Australia and other Western countries that the region is unsafe.

“As far as the travel warning, I think Australia is as unsafe as the Asean countries,” he said. “In fact at the moment, Australia is particularly unsafe for Muslims because they are likely to have their houses raided.”

Also, he said the Asean countries have agreed to share information. “Terrorists do not recognize borders—they can be in one country or another country, they can be like a tourist or a businessman. We should provide the necessary information to the other country.”

Mahathir rejected an earlier report that India and Asean were forming a free-trade area. Indian External Minister Jashwant Sinha had said earlier that India would study the possibility of forming a free-trade area with Asean countries that could be up and running in 10 years.

When asked if India’s possible plan to start a free-trade area would be formed to offset China’s influence, Mahathir said, “We are not thinking of counterbalancing China or anything like that. We think we can co-exist with China and even benefit with China—of course we have to take the losses together with the gains.”

He did express mixed feelings over the South China Sea decision, saying “the words used [in the proposal] may appear to be slightly more loose than the original proposal, but this is an agreement that is very assuring for all the countries—it will help us manage the situation in the South China Sea without too much unilateral action on the part of any other country concerned.”

The final event of this week’s summits was an address to Asean members by South African President Thabo Mbeki, who is the chairman newly formed African Union.

Mbeki espoused the benefits of solidarity, while congratulating Asean on its efforts to establish peace in the region.

(Reporting by Rick Sine, Kevin Doyle and David Kihara)

 

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