Monday, 16 November 2009

Philippines to prepare regional plan

FELIPE F. SALVOSA II, Associate Editor

SINGAPORE -- The Philippines was tapped by leaders of Southeast Asia and the United States to prepare a new five-year cooperation plan covering trade, labor mobility, cultural exchange and others following their first-ever meeting yesterday.

The move reflected Washington’s policy shift toward a more active involvement in the region, marked by a decision to engage members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) without treating countries like Myanmar as outcasts.

A statement was issued following the first meeting between a US president and heads of all 10 ASEAN countries, calling for "broader and deeper" cooperation and enhanced economic cooperation, particularly in easing customs procedures. They agreed to hold a second meeting next year.

"The general consensus was that the dialogue now has a firm basis to reach an even higher level," Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Enrique A. Manalo, who helped draft the statement, told reporters here.

The Philippines serves as country coor-dinator for the ASEAN-US dialogue from 2009-2012, and was tasked to lead the drafting of a new five-year plan of action.

President Gloria M. Arroyo -- the third leader to speak in the meeting after Thai Premier Abhisit Vejjaviva, the ASEAN chair-man, and US President Barack Obama -- focused on her role as coordinator and the Philippines’ forthcoming assumption as head of a United Nations review committee on nuclear nonproliferation.

ASEAN leaders welcomed the US decision to join the region’s nonaggression treaty early this year as well as Washington’s openness to sign a deal making Southeast Asia a nuclear weapons-free zone, which could restrict the movement of US vessels carrying nuclear weapons.

Mr. Manalo said the meeting was "friendly and productive" and that there was no tension between the US and Myanmar, although Mr. Obama called on the Myanmese junta to release democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, a key stumbling block in ASEAN’s relations with trade partners such as the US and Europe.

"We were pleased to noted that economic relations between ASEAN and the United States continue to be strong and dynamic," the statement said, noting that two-way trade has reached $178 billion, while foreign direct investments stood at $153 billion.

New initiatives will be undertaken through the existing agreement that is the basis for US and ASEAN dialogue for trade and investment. The "broader engagement" will now include meetings between ASEAN finance ministers and the US Treasury chief, aside from the regular dialogue of trade ministers.

Energy ministers will also meet next year to discuss cooperation in renewable and alternative energy.

The statement also called for the conclusion of the Doha round of World Trade Organization talks next year, and supported the statement of leaders of G-20 countries against protectionist economic policies.

"Drawing from the valuable lessons of 1997 and 2008, we resolved to contribute to reforming the global economic and financial architecture to safeguard the global economy from future crises, and to promote regional and global economic growth and recovery," it added.

The ASEAN-US leaders’ meeting was held after the yearly summit of Pacific Rim nations, in which the 20-year-old Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum reiterated a goal of economic integration in the region.

The statement also covered areas such as human rights, nuclear nonproliferation, terrorism and transnational crimes, disaster management, the so-called millennium development goals, food security and preparedness against pandemics, and climate change.

It called for cooperation in ensuring the success of December’s climate change talks in Copenhagen, without addressing calls for binding targets for carbon emission reductions.

"We stressed that access to diverse, reliable, affordable, and clean energy is critical for sustain-able economic growth, and agreed that accelerated deployment of clean energy technology and energy efficiency measures would diversify our energy supplies and strengthen out energy security."

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