ASEAN Summit opens, targets development gaps

Cambodia said Tuesday it will focus on financial stability and narrowing regional development gaps during its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2012.

Prime Minister Hun Sen told an ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh that Cambodia’s priorities for its year at the helm also included promoting an infrastructure investment fund and protecting migrant workers’ rights.

But he said his number one task was “strengthening the mechanisms for ensuring financial stability in the region as well as for preventing future crises” in the global economy.

This would require the doubling in size of the Chiang Mai Initiative, a multilateral currency swap system likened to an Asian Monetary Fund, from $120 billion to $240 billion.

ASEAN should also push ahead with its plans to create a single market of almost 600 million people by 2015, and establish a multilateral investment fund to improve infrastructure links.

Surin Pitsuwan, the association’s secretary general, told reporters at the summit that ASEAN had only three years to complete the complex negotiations surrounding the ambitious plan for economic integration.

“We have less than three years left to get to the community. They all pledged to redouble their efforts,” he said.

Hun Sen said this was vital for “narrowing the development gap” between the association’s 10 member states, which range from deeply impoverished Myanmar to advanced city state Singapore and emerging powerhouse Indonesia.

Countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia are sources of huge labour flows in the form of construction workers, maids and nannies for wealthier ASEAN members like Malaysia and Singapore, as well as the Middle East.

Hun Sen said the block had spoken in the past of creating a regional mechanism to protect such workers’ rights but too little progress had been made.

“We should include this issue as a priority in our agenda and agree on some concrete measures in 2012 for implementation,” he told the assembled leaders at the summit’s opening ceremony in Phnom Penh.

Boosting cooperation on disaster management in a region frequently lashed by floods, tsunamis and earthquakes is another priority of Cambodia’s tenure, he said.

Food security also needed to be enhanced through greater cooperation on improving productivity and investment in agriculture.

ASEAN has often been dismissed as a talking shop but it has grown in strategic importance in line with the region’s economic strength and, in the eyes of the United States, as a potential bulwark against China.