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ASEAN begins meeting amid fears of being sidelined in region+
[July 21, 2008]

ASEAN begins meeting amid fears of being sidelined in region+

(Japan Economic Newswire Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) SINGAPORE, July 21_(Kyodo) _ Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed concern Monday that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could end up being sidelined in the region if Japan, China and South Korea improve their relations and pursue their own initiatives without the involvement of the 10-member group.

Lee, speaking at the opening of the annual meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers, said the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea are planning to hold a trilateral summit in Japan this September, which will be "the first outside an ASEAN setting."

"ASEAN cannot take its continued relevance for granted. If our efforts to achieve faster and deeper integration falter, ASEAN may well be sidelined," Lee said.

ASEAN members have long been anxious to play a central role in multilateral security and economic forums in the region but that hope could be eroded as relations between Japan, China and South Korea show signs of improvement, he said.

"Because of longstanding tensions and rivalries between the major Asian powers, ASEAN could play a useful role as a neutral platform for regional interactions," Lee said.

However, "major power relations are improving, and alternative platforms are emerging," he said, referring to the six-party talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an intergovernmental mutual security organization that involves China, Russia and Central Asian states.

The economically and politically diverse member states of ASEAN, dwarfed by major powers, see their grouping as a means to have a bigger voice on the world stage.

Over the years they have initiated the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum on security, which brings together countries such as the United States, China, India, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas, and more recently the 16-nation East Asia Summit, always insisting the group should play a central role.

In particular, this meeting is expected to discuss Australia's recent proposal for an Asia-Pacific community, which has also caused a stir among the grouping, with Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo saying recently, "For us in ASEAN, we are of course concerned that whatever new arrangements there may be, they should not weaken ASEAN's central position in Asia."

The ministers are expected to discuss ways to further strengthen the 41-year-old grouping to create a more unified region in their meeting but that could be overshadowed by domestic political turmoil and a territorial dispute plaguing some of the member countries.

In his speech, Lee urged ASEAN members not to allow domestic concerns to slow down their commitments to the group's goals.

"Inevitably, there will be times when some members place higher priority on their own domestic agendas. But as a region it is vital that we continue to move forward on ASEAN cooperation and integration, even if the pace may sometimes vary," Lee said.

ASEAN is preparing to implement a historic charter later this year that will transform the grouping into a more legal and binding entity as the first step to achieve a larger plan for an ASEAN community by 2015.

As part of the charter's goals, it is also attempting to brush up its human rights image in the eyes of the world and establish a dispute settlement mechanism to resolve any misunderstandings on agreements signed among member states.

However, the meeting is taking place amid political turbulence in Malaysia and Thailand as well as a territorial dispute that has erupted between Thailand and Cambodia in recent days. It also has to grapple with more immediate concerns such as the current global food and energy crisis, which has battered the region.

The ASEAN foreign ministers discussed the territorial dispute between Thailand and Cambodia, which has threatened to escalate into armed conflict, and also political developments in Myanmar at their informal working dinner on Sunday kicking off this week's series of ASEAN-led meetings.

On Myanmar, Yeo said Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win has indicated that political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi could be released in about six months time, while on the Thai-Cambodia dispute, ASEAN has urged both sides to exercise restraint and resolve the issue peacefully.

The ASEAN ministers are expected to discuss the ratification and implementation of the charter, which was inked by ASEAN leaders last year. ASEAN hopes to have the charter ratified by all member states by their leaders' summit this November. So far only seven have ratified it, with some of the founding members of ASEAN -- Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines -- yet to do so.

Philippine legislators in particular have insisted that there must be an improvement in fellow member Myanmar's human rights and democracy record, including the release of Suu Kyi, before the charter can be ratified.

After years of clamoring by Western governments and civil societies for ASEAN to do more on human rights, the group is seeking to establish a human rights body as part of the charter, but progress has been slow with a high-level panel still discussing the concept of the human rights body.

The ministers will also review the situation in Myanmar in terms of the flow of foreign assistance for humanitarian and rehabilitation work after the cyclone disaster earlier this year.

On Tuesday, the ASEAN ministers will meet with their counterparts from Japan, China and South Korea in the ASEAN-plus-three foreign ministerial talks and also attend the first meeting of foreign ministers of the 16-nation East Asia Summit.

On Wednesday, the ASEAN ministers will have separate meetings with their counterparts from 10 key partners, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, before the week's series of meetings culminates with the gathering of foreign ministers from the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum, a loose multilateral security forum, on Thursday.

North Korea will accede to ASEAN's nonaggression treaty, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, at a small signing ceremony on Thursday, becoming the 15th country from outside the region to do so.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Copyright ? 2008 Kyodo News International, Inc.

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