(STAR) By Aurea Calica - The Philippines is ready for global trade and the country is now working with other Asian nations to move the economic roadmap forward through the free movement of goods, people, and services within the region.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum here, President Arroyo said she was proud that the WEF emphasized the shift of economic power to Asia as it continued to assert itself as a region that champions unity and cooperation to achieve both security and development.

Twenty four other heads of state and government and 800 business executives from 90 countries attended this year’s WEF.

"Indeed, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is asserting itself because it is time for Asia to stand up and be counted. It is time for Asia to take control of its own destiny. It is a signal that Asia is maturing. It has become a full partner in economic, security and political affairs," Mrs. Arroyo said in a statement here as she talked about the ASEAN’s economic roadmap.

She said the Philippines is leading ASEAN at this time, as its current chairman, to promote political and economic development in the region.

"At a time of uncertainty in the world, I am proud that ASEAN is taking a bold step forward rather than a timid step back by committing to establish an ASEAN Charter. At a time when the Doha round is faltering, ASEAN wants to stand up and proclaim its support for keeping the doors of global trade open. And ASEAN is committed to expanding its trade area to create one of the world’s great trading blocs," the President said.

Mrs. Arroyo said an ASEAN Charter would help achieve "One Vision, One Identity, One Community" for the region and hopefully, someday, "One Union" for ASEAN.

She said ASEAN would achieve this by providing an enhanced institutional framework as well as conferring a legal personality to ASEAN.

ASEAN’s first attempt to integrate began with the implementation of the ASEAN Free Trade Area in 1992.

Since then, Mrs. Arroyo said intra-ASEAN trade had grown fourfold.

"Now we have decided to accelerate the establishment of an ASEAN Community by 2015 rather than 2020. ASEAN’s economic roadmap will lead to an ASEAN single market and production base in which there is a free movement of goods, services, skilled labor and investments, equitable economic development, reduced poverty incidence and narrowed socio-economic development gaps," she said.

"The challenge is to create a stronger, more united and cohesive ASEAN while further expanding our engagement with our dialogue partners and other parties," Mrs. Arroyo said.

To facilitate the free movement of goods, ASEAN integration is now underway in 12 priority sectors that make up the bulk of our trade with one another, the President said.

"ASEAN is not only eliminating or minimizing tariffs on priority sectors. It is also enhancing trade facilitation to reduce transaction costs and the cost of doing business in our region. This involves simplification and harmonization of our customs regimes through an ASEAN single window."

As to the free flow of skilled labor, one example of integration is the Mutual Recognition Arrangement for Nursing Services that was signed in the summit in Cebu a few weeks ago, the President said.

While creating more cohesion within itself, Mrs. Arroyo said ASEAN is also integrating with all the major economic players in the region –China, India, Japan and Korea –by forging individual 10 Plus 1 economic partnership agreements and negotiating free trade areas with each of them.

"The signing of the ASEAN-China Agreement on Trade in Services at the Cebu Summit inched us closer to free trade in the region, cutting barriers on services such as telecommunications, transportation and tourism," Mrs. Arroyo said.

Meanwhile, a Swiss company involved in the development of technology for product and document security is eyeing a major investment in the Philippines to prevent counterfeiting, smuggling and tax evasion.

SICPA, one of the world’s largest producers of security inks for currencies, products and value documents, said it would like to invest in a secure and integrated infrastructure authentication program that would enhance government revenues by protecting local and imported goods, such as tobacco and alcohol while enhancing the tax system.

Co-executive chairman Maurice Amon announced his company’s plans in a meeting with President Arroyo after her arrival here Thursday night for the World Economic Forum.

"By this proposal, we are affirming our confidence in the Philippines as an investment site and as a partner in a major cooperative undertaking," Amon said in a statement.

According to Amon, what they are offering is an integrated technology that will help the government enforce its tax laws with efficiency, security and consistency across domestically-produced and imported products.

All set and implementation costs will be borne by SICPA under a business model where SICPA fully absorbs all investments in information technology and technical infrastructure program in the Philippines.

SICPA is a global systems integrator which has the distinct advantage of being the only company that can integrate secure "track and trace solutions" to protect products and government revenues, Amon said.

The firm provided the security feature for the US dollar and developed the anti-smuggling and tax enhancement system for Vietnam to protect government and brand owners against counterfeiting and smuggling.

Meanwhile the government welcomed the prospects of the Philippines getting credit upgrade from debt watchers despite the coming elections.

"Prospects of a credit upgrade this year as foreseen by international financial institutions such as ING is a clear recognition that the Philippines is on the right track," Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said in a statement.

Bunye arrived with Mrs. Arroyo Thursday evening along with other members of the Philippine delegation to the WEF.

Mrs. Arroyo was set to meet with various business executives on the side of the WEF to discuss possible investments in the Philippines.

The Dutch Investment bank ING reiterated its forecast that the Philippines would likely get its long-awaited one-notch sovereign credit rating upgrade from Moody’s and Standard and Poors within the next 12 months.

The government has raised its 2007 gross domestic product growth expectations to 6.1 percent to 6.7 percent from 5.7 percent to 6.5 percent.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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