Southeast Asian Leaders Prepare to Open ASEAN Summit

Southeast Asian leaders are preparing to open a series of summit meetings Monday in Malaysia that will culminate in the first East Asia Summit on Wednesday. Economic cooperation remains the main focus of the gathering, but the leaders face numerous other issues.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, opens its summit Monday in the Malaysian capital seeking to accelerate economic integration.

The director of the Malaysian Institute for Strategic and International Studies, Mohamed Jawhar Hassan, says a major move is to draft a charter for ASEAN.

"The charter will help institutionalize, give legal framework to ASEAN and through that enable ASEAN to function better and engage as a legal entity in the international community, at the U.N., etc.," he noted.

Mr. Hassan says the charter could also make resolutions legally binding and thus modernize mechanisms to integrate the disparate economies of its 10 members.

Since ASEAN was formed nearly 40 years ago it has eliminated most tariffs between its members. But the head of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center, Abdul-Razak Baginda, says ASEAN has not addressed the most difficult measures, like the free flow of people and business capital.

"I have become skeptical and I think so long as ASEAN countries are not willing to surrender its [their] sovereignty to a higher level, it [ASEAN] will remain just paper," commented Mr. Baginda.

He says because of ASEAN's lack of progress, many countries have begun negotiating bilateral free-trade agreements.

In addition, ASEAN leaders are being obliged by international events to focus on other issues.

A draft of their final statement commits their governments to jointly combating bird flu. This virulent strain of avian influenza emerged in Asia two years ago and, according to experts, could cause a global pandemic if it mutates into a form that is easily transmitted between humans.

The ASEAN countries are reportedly to build regional stockpiles of anti-viral medicines and pledge to maintain transparency concerning any outbreaks.

Moves to enhance cooperation against international terrorism and trans-national crime are also expected, as is a call for nuclear non-proliferation on the Korean Peninsula.

This year, some delegates say they want the leaders to address high oil prices, which are threatening economic growth. Others say they want the summit to address environmental hazards like the smoke caused by seasonal forest fires in some member nations.

The ASEAN leaders will conclude their three days of summitry with the inaugural meeting of the East Asia Summit, a regional forum that will include six other major nations in the region: China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.