Opening the 20th Asean Summit in Phnom Penh yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen called on Southeast Asia’s leaders to close the gap between the region’s rich and poor countries by removing trade barriers, investing more in infrastructure and increasing the free flow of labor. But noticeably missing from Mr. Hun Sen’s speech was the issue of territorial disputes in the South China Sea between several of Asean’s members and China, a subject that has been heatedly debated on the sidelines of the summit and in preceding meetings.
Although the Philippines has expressed its desire to discuss the South China Sea issue at the summit, Cambodia in its position as Asean chair has studiously said the matter is not on this year’s agenda.
“We have to pay special attention to narrowing development gaps among members of Asean,” Mr. Hun Sen said in a speech at the summit’s opening ceremony at his office building in Phnom Penh.
“We should place priority on the establishment of the Asean Economic Community by 2015, to transform Asean as a single market and production base, with free flow of goods services, investment and skilled labor,” he said to hundreds of dignitaries and delegates from the region.
One of the biggest challenges for the Asean region is to close the so-called development gap between the bloc’s richer countries like Singapore and Thailand, and the less wealthy countries such as Cambodia, Burma and Laos.
Asean has set itself the goal of 2015 to implement measures that bring about the free flow of goods, investment, people and capital. But economists say poorer countries could be left behind if their industries are not as competitive as those in more developed countries.
Mr. Hun Sen said that in order to reach the goals set out by Asean 2015, finance ministers should work closely with the Jakarta-based Economic Research Institute for Asean and East Asia (ERIA).
“Within the region, although the development gap among Asean members has been noticeably narrowed, it is still huge,” he said. “This requires us to double our efforts to promote further growth.”
A document prepared by ERIA, which was presented at a meeting on the Asean Economic Community on Monday, shows that if members of the bloc remove tariffs, reduce taxes and cut delays in importing and exporting goods, countries stand to see GDP growth increase substantially.
If all those steps are taken, Cambodia’s GDP growth would see an additional 4.4 percent growth between 2011 and 2015. Vietnam would see an extra 3.5 percent growth and Laos another 2.3 percent, according to the report.
But independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay questioned Mr. Hun Sen’s desire to push free trade within Asean, saying that such a move could come too soon for countries like Cambodia, whose export industries remain very narrowly based and uncompetitive compared to other countries in the region.
“We need more time, or a gradual process. Otherwise, we’ll be swamped by skilled workers from other countries and goods from more advanced economies. That would stifle our local production, our local industry,” he said.
Also yesterday, Mr. Hun Sen called for leaders to discuss increasing the $485 million that is currently inside the recently established Asean Infrastructure Fund, and repeated a call made last week for Asean finance ministers to double the size of the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization-a bailout fund for Asean, China, Japan and South Korea-to $240 billion.
“In the context of the continued global financial and economic uncertainty, Asean must pay special attention to strengthening the mechanism for ensuring financial stability in the region,” he said.
Mr. Hun Sen also mentioned the need to make sure the rights of migrant workers are respected as Asean aims toward the free flow of labor.
Cambodian workers have suffered poor working conditions and violence in other Asean member states, notably Malaysia and Thailand. Thousands of Cambodians are thought to be working in abusive conditions on Thai fishing boats and many of those sent to work as maids in Malaysia have been subject to serious abuse.
“This highlights the need for strengthening cooperation among Asean members in order to protect the rights of migrant workers,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, said that countries receiving Cambodian migrants have so far failed to protect their rights.
“These countries have to show their commitment,” he said.
The Asean Summit comes to a close today.