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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Nov 20, 2007
Asean leaders sign Charter, economic and environment pacts
By Warren Fernandez, Deputy Editor & Foreign Editor

Leaders from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) pose for a group photo before the 13th ASEAN Summit Plenary session. -- PHOTO: AFP

SHRUGGING off the divisions of Monday, Asean leaders on Tuesday signed a raft of agreements aimed at drawing their countries closer, stepping up economic links and tackling common environmental problems

After a closed-door morning retreat held at the Shangri-La hotel, they gathered in the chandeliered Island Ballroom to put their names to the Asean Charter, as well as a blueprint for economic integration and two declarations on the environment.

Making plain that he and his Asean counterparts had no intention of allowing the summit to be hijacked by disputes over Myanmar, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared that 'integration is a strategic priority for Asean'.

He added, in his opening remarks at the summit: 'Last night, the Asean leaders had a full and open discussion on the situation in Myanmar. As Asean Chair, Singapore put out a statement to clarify Asean's role and stand.

'Asean leaders will strive to prevent the Myanmar issue from obstructing our efforts to deepen integration and build an Asean community.'

He was referring to the surprise cancellation late on Monday night of a briefing to the East Asian summit by United Nations Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari, which was supposed to take place on Tuesday.

Asean leaders called it off, after Myanmar objected to the meeting, and told the grouping to leave it to deal with the UN itself.

On Tuesday, leaders projected a sense of business as usual, with several declaring the day's signings to be 'historic' and a 'milestone'.

'It is a historic moment because the new Charter will address ongoing challenges and opportunities,' Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told reporters before the signing ceremony.

The 31-page Charter spells out how Asean might take what PM Lee called a 'symbolic quantum leap' from being a loose regional grouping to become a more effective and cohesive organisation, with clearer rules on how decisions should be made and disputes settled.

It calls on Asean leaders to meet twice a year, establishes four new coordinating councils of ministers, as well as a committee of permanent representatives to be based in Jakarta. Asean will also appoint four deputies, who will, among other things, help the secretary-general monitor how well the group is living up to its pledges and plans.

The group will also have a new human-rights body, although its shape and form will be settled by foreign ministers later.

Leaders also signed a blueprint to forge an Asean Economic Community by 2015. This entails a single market and production base, where goods, services, investments and capital, as well as skilled workers, will be able to flow freely.

Significantly, given the need to speed up economic integration in the face of mounting competition from China and India, the blueprint includes detailed targets and timelines for implementation.

The environment also featured prominently, with leaders devoting a whole session during their morning retreat to discuss what PM Lee described as a 'serious global problem', on which action was increasingly urgent.

They later signed two 'green' declarations. The first details initiatives that Asean will take to tackle environmental challenges, such as pollution and the protecting of forests.

The latter pledges the group's backing for the United Nation's conference on climate change next month in Bali, where negotiations will begin on a new pact to deal with greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming, when the present Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

After the signing ceremonies, all 10 leaders stood together on Tuesday to raise a toast to their new Charter, with glasses of pink fruit juice.

'Ah, guava,' said Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi with a smile, raising his glass to his colleagues.

Perhaps acknowledging critics who question the value of the Charter in the face of Monday's developments, PM Lee said on Tuesday that Asean integration was a 'constant work in progress and what we have achieved so far is surely far from the ideal state'.

The signing of the Charter was part of a 'longer, continuing journey', he said, adding a call for the document to be ratified by all members in time for the group's summit in Thailand next year.

'Asean must gradually adapt to a culture of compliance and implementation. Only then can we make sustained progress and forge ahead as a grouping.'

Later, Asean held a ceremony to mark the 10th anniversary of its 'plus three' meetings, with China, Japan and Korea. This was followed by a gala dinner at Raffles City Convention Centre for Asean's 40th anniversary.

Prof Gambari, who arrived in Singapore on Tuesday, was present at the dinner. He said he was 'disappointed' at not being allowed to address the summit, but he did manage to hold several discussions with leaders on the sidelines, and will meet PM Lee on Wednesday.

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