MANILA, November 29, 2004
By Marvin Sy - President Arroyo called on members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) yesterday to speed up the integration of their respective economies in order to create an East Asian economic bloc.

Speaking at the second ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in Vientiane, Laos, Mrs. Arroyo emphasized the need to come up with an ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) so they can fulfill the goal of an expanded ASEAN by 2020 and create the world’s largest trading bloc.

She noted that developed Western economies are resisting the Asian business model of reverse engineering, making the need to develop a solid regional market in Asia more important.

"There are now tensions between East and West because in order to ensure their own economic growth, there has emerged, among the developed countries of the West, a growing resistance to the Asian business model," the President said.

Mrs. Arroyo said Asian economies "can no longer continue to rely" on the Western market.

"We can only see one way out and that is not by looking west but rather (by) looking inward," she said.

The President stressed the need to further develop ASEAN member states as well as China, Japan and Korea so their trading bloc will be even more formidable.

"An enlarged East Asian bloc can secure not only the developing and less developed countries of ASEAN but also the future of China, Japan and Korea as economic leaders in the Pacific. Therefore, they must actively participate and we must all participate towards the formation of an East Asian regional economic bloc," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo urged the business community to work out the expanded ASEAN economic integration to ensure the improvement of the quality of life in less developed countries and expand the market for more developed ones.

She explained that the more developed countries in the region — such as Japan, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia — should help their less developed neighbors improve their citizens’ quality of life, resulting in an increase in per capita income in these countries.

The President said in the ASEAN "plus three," progress has so far been limited to China as the free trade agreement with ASEAN is moving faster than expected.

She admitted the several ASEAN countries will need the 15 years before 2020 to successfully compete with Korea and Japan.

It is for this reason that the Philippines has discussed having a bilateral economic partnership with Japan to benefit from what could be immediately exchanged between the two countries, particularly in the area of health care.

The two countries have been engaged in free trade discussions. Mrs. Arroyo hopes to reach an informal agreement with Japan during this summit.

The President said that once ASEAN forms a single trading bloc with AFTA, this will lead to the birth of a mega market — said to be the second China — and "become the foundation by which the new division of work relation will develop in East Asia."

"In other words, if we’re going to use 15 years so that by the end of 15 years we are integrated with China, Japan and Korea, we must be integrated first within ASEAN during those 15 years so that we can now work with the swifter economies for the division of labor among us," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo warned that the more the AFTA is delayed, "the less we will be competitive in the East Asian economic integration."

She pointed out that the Philippine government is making the effort to become a strong member of the East Asian economic bloc.

The President cited that some of her administration’s efforts include democratic reforms, economic restructuring, the peaceful resolution of existing conflicts, establishing government bodies to eliminate corruption and addressing the budget deficit in order to bring new jobs and prosperity for the poor.

"I will strive to expand the frontiers of trade and investment, of regional stability, security and most of all to build upon our common aspirations of peace, harmony and prosperity," she said.

In a related development, Mrs. Arroyo defended her foreign travels as a means to promote the country as an investment destination.

Speaking to reporters before leaving for the ASEAN summit in Laos, Mrs. Arroyo said she had been looking for more jobs for Filipinos and opportunities for small business, and working to improve exports and bring in more tourists.

"I will continue to attend to these concerns even while I’m in the ASEAN summit in (Vientiane)," she said in Filipino. "I will not tire, I will not beat around the bush, I will lead the country to the best of my abilities through every opportunities and challenges."

Mrs. Arroyo said she will tell other heads of state of the ASEAN that the Philippines will be a strong regional partner for peace and prosperity.

"In a region where poverty is a common enemy, ASEAN’s response is the full integration of East Asia and strong linkages to the rest of the world," she said.

"We shall continue to integrate our domestic and international policy framework to ensure that every international arrangement entered into by our government redounds to jobs for our people."

Upon arriving in Vientiane, Mrs. Arroyo met with the Filipino community at the Philippine embassy.

"You are the best advertisement for the Philippines because Filipinos all over the world are a source of pride," Mrs. Arroyo told the Filipinos.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved