KUALA LUMPUR — Ten Southeast Asian leaders are likely to discuss a range of sensitive issues at a summit of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Monday, from oil prices and trade to air pollution and bird flu.
Some issues will be discussed among all the ASEAN leaders while others will be raised either in bilateral talks held on the sidelines of the Kuala Lumpur summit or in wider East Asian talks that immediately follow the ASEAN summit.
China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand will attend the East Asian summit while Russia will be an observer.
Here are some of the main issues:
– Bird flu: The biggest single health risk facing the region since the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in China in late 2002, which spread to nearly 30 countries and killed about 800 in 2003. SARS hurt tourism and economic growth across the region. Japan is expected to announce details of a package to help developing Asian countries fight the spread of bird flu.
– Southern Thailand: Malaysia and Thailand may discuss the fate of 130 Thai Muslims taking refuge in Malaysia from rising violence in Thailand’s mainly Muslim south. Bangkok has hinted the issue, which has hurt relations, could be resolved soon.
– Myanmar: ASEAN’s most awkward member may be a topic of delicate discussions on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit after the United Nations agreed for the first time last week to discuss human rights in the military-ruled country.
– Oil prices and poverty: The Philippines, which takes over the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN next June, plans to press for cooperation in energy and maritime security and conservation. High oil prices have hit some ASEAN states hard because governments subsidise fuel prices. Indonesians staged nation-wide protests this year after Jakarta raised fuel prices.
– Investment and trade: There is disappointment within ASEAN that the grouping’s progress in regional free-trade has not been matched by cross-border investment. While intra-ASEAN trade recovered quickly from the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, intra-ASEAN investment tumbled 73 percent between 1995 and 2001 to $933 million, according to ASEAN figures. Over the same period, intra-ASEAN exports grew 20 percent to $84.5 billion. By 2003, trade had climbed to $100.3 billion.
– ASEAN charter: The grouping has existed for 38 years but still has no legal identity or enforceable set of rules. Next week’s talks are expected to authorise a draft constitution to be created, guided by a panel of “eminent persons”. The process could open a can of worms, such as whether it should enshrine some human rights protections or include penalties such as suspension or even expulsion from the grouping if any member breaches the charter. Myanmar has already been pressured into forfeiting its turn next year to hold the chairmanship of ASEAN because of European and U.S. threats to boycott the grouping’s proceedings if Yangon took the chair.
– Haze: Forest fires are an annual irritant in Southeast Asia and occasionally flare up into pollution crises. Despite an ASEAN agreement to jointly tackle the problem, a choking haze shrouded the Malaysian capital for over a week in August, leading to sharp words between Malaysia and its big neighbour, Indonesia. Indonesian fires flare up each year as farmers, plantation owners and miners burn forests to clear land during the dry season.
– Trade: South Korea and ASEAN are due to sign a framework agreement on free trade at the summit, paving the way for a fully fledged free-trade pact, but Thailand has said it won’t sign unless South Korea agrees to include rice in the deal.