After four years of negotiations, Australia and New Zealand have signed a free trade agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The deal gives both countries access to a market of nearly 600 million people.
AFP - Southeast Asian ministers signed a major free trade deal with Australia and New Zealand on Friday as they opened a summit focused on shielding the region from the global economic meltdown.
While ministers also discussed the plight of refugees from military-ruled Myanmar and plans to form a human rights body, their annual gathering is being dominated by efforts to shore up their export-driven economies.
Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean and New Zealand counterpart Tim Groser signed the trade deal along with ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) after negotiations lasting nearly four years.
"This agreement is a significant agreement for the region," Crean told a press conference after the signing.
The pact is the most comprehensive ever signed by ASEAN, which has a combined gross domestic product of 1.4 trillion dollars, and gives Australia and New Zealand access to a market of nearly 600 million people.
"It powerfully demonstrates... the region's strong commitment to opening up markets in the face of this crisis.
"This will keep trade flows open in the region, increase growth and give a much-needed boost to confidence," he added in a statement.
As leaders of the regional grouping began to arrive in the Thai beach resort of Hua Hin for their three-day summit, they gave mixed signals on the region's attitude to economic protectionism.
"We must not resort to protectionist tendencies at trying times," Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in a speech to business leaders.
But Malaysian premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said in an interview with the Bangkok Post that it was a "normal reaction" to urge people to buy local goods during times of crisis.
Over the weekend, leaders are expected to sign a declaration on a roadmap for forming a European Union-style community by 2015, following the signing of the group's landmark new charter last December.
ASEAN is starting to feel the effects of the global economic crisis, with its financial hub Singapore facing its worst recession since independence and other nations, including Thailand, sliding in the same direction.
Friday's trade signing is part of a raft of measures mooted by the organisation to ride out the global economic crisis, including a 120-billion-dollar emergency fund agreed on by finance ministers last Sunday.
ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said the group wanted the fund to be set up before its leaders meet with their Chinese, Japanese and South Korean counterparts from April 10-12.
That meeting was originally due to take place in December alongside the summit, but both were postponed because of political turmoil in Thailand and the three economic giants have stayed away from this weekend's summit.
ASEAN also faces its perennially tricky problem of human rights at the summit, especially the failure to use its influence to stop abuses by Myanmar's military junta.
Critics have already warned that a planned human rights body being set up under ASEAN's new charter risks being powerless if it is based on a limited mandate and policy of non-interference in the affairs of member states.
"From what we understand... principles of non-interference will be enshrined in the terms of reference," Yap Swee Seng, executive director of the Bangkok-based Asia Forum, told AFP.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch earlier urged ASEAN to press Myanmar's generals to end rights violations, including the treatment of the Muslim Rohingya boat people.
The poverty-stricken Rohingyas hit the headlines earlier this year when Thai security forces allegedly abandoned hundreds of the migrants at sea.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Date created : 2009-02-27