(STAR) Finance ministers and top officials from Southeast Asia, China, Japan and South Korea met in Phuket, Thailand yesterday to discuss how the region can soften the blow from the global financial crisis.

Topping the agenda is a proposed multibillion-dollar credit line to help members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) cope with the crisis, which members want to see expanded from $80 to $120 billion.

“The meeting will send a very strong signal to the world that we are committed to alleviating the global economic slowdown,” Thai Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij said at the meeting on the southern resort isle of Phuket.

The meeting precedes the annual leaders’ summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) next week which President Arroyo is slated to attend.

The summit, originally set January but which was postponed due to a political firestorm last year when demonstrators took over the airport, will be held in Hua Hin from Feb. 28 to March 11. Mrs. Arroyo is expected to leave for Thailand on Feb. 27.

Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said the official delegation would be “very small” to include himself, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo, Trade Secretary Peter Favila, Finance Secretary Margarito Teves, and Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap.

“The (summit) agenda is still to address the global economic crisis and on how the ASEAN members can better cope with the crisis,” Remonde told dzRB.

He said Mrs. Arroyo will also press for her long-running campaign to allow developing countries like the Philippines to be included in the decision-making of developed economies in addressing the global economic crisis.

“We are thankful that the Philippines is not in recession, thanks to the tough decisions of the Arroyo administration,” he said.

He said there are bilateral meetings being arranged between Mrs. Arroyo and other ASEAN leaders but he could not give more details.

Remonde said the President is also scheduled to make an official visit to South Korea in the first week of March and Kuwait in the coming weeks but details are still being finalized.

Base solutions

The Thai finance minister said, “Finance ministers in all countries need to work to find the base and most effective solutions and measures to tackle and underlie uncertainty.”

Ministers and officials from ASEAN’s Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam are meeting with Chinese and South Korean finance ministers and a top Japanese official.

ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said the long-discussed regional fund would be used to help members “badly affected” as the global economic downturn hits Asia’s key trading partners in the United States and Europe.

“It is one of the mechanisms — it is not to replace or compete with the IMF (International Monetary Fund), but it will be an alternative for Asian countries,” Surin said on Thai television.

“If it materializes, it will be one of ASEAN’s most tangible achievements.”

ASEAN members plus China, Japan and South Korea agreed after the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis to set up a bilateral currency swap scheme known as the Chiang Mai Initiative to prevent a repeat of the turmoil.

Asian nations now want to expand that agreement into a multilateral fund pool to help member nations as the current economic climate threatens millions of jobs as well as the recent robust growth in Asia’s developing economies.

Asian nations had previously discussed an 80-billion-dollar emergency pool, but last year mooted expanding that figure to 120 billion dollars.

“Unfortunately our region is currently facing enormous challenges including global economic slowdown and financial turbulence,” said South Korean Finance Minister Yoon Jeung-Hyun.

“The environment calls for stronger cooperation among the ASEAN countries. I believe the Chiang Mai Initiative and its multilateralization is a prime example of such regional collaboration efforts.”

As the morning session came to a close, Surin told reporters that the meeting was “good and positive,” and said all ministers agreed in principle to expand the fund.

He said ASEAN members would equally contribute to make up 20 percent of the pool, with the remaining 80 percent coming from the big three Asia economies.

“This idea will be submitted to the ASEAN summit in Hua Hin next week,” Surin said.

Sunday’s meeting comes ahead of ASEAN’s annual summit starting on Feb. 27, which current chair Thailand will host at the seaside resort town. – Paolo Romero

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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