CEBU, Philippines, (AP) -Southeast Asian leaders agreed at their annual summit Saturday to create a tighter political bloc, turn their region into a free-trade zone by 2015 and fight harder against terrorism and poverty.
In a major break with its consensus-based past, the 10-country body has agreed to discuss a plan that would form a more cohesive organization able to sanction or even expel members that do not follow its rules.
The leaders also signed a counterterrorism pact legally binding their countries to share information and training aimed at stemming terror and cross-border crime.
The host of the summit, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, stressed the need to bolster free trade within ASEAN, which includes the Philippines, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Myanmar, Brunei and Indonesia.
“ASEAN is committed to expanding its trade forum to become the largest in the world,” she said in opening the meeting, held under heavy security following three deadly explosions in the southern Philippines days before.
The leaders want to establish the free trade zone by 2015, five years earlier than previously proposed. It will be adopted in two stages, with the six richer nations — including wealthy Singapore and oil-rich Brunei — starting the integration in 2010 and the others following later.
China, Japan and South Korea, who will be participating in an expanded summit Sunday involving ASEAN’s six “dialogue partners,” hope to join the Southeast Asian grouping’s economic circle. The other dialogue partners are Australia, New Zealand and India.
“Up until now, we have never had a charter,” said former Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, a member of the group that drafted the recommendations. “We will see how the implementation will go.”
No fixed date for the charter has been set, but ASEAN is aiming to have something to present at its next summit in Singapore at the end of the year.
Southeast Asian countries have long voiced support for a joint charter, but the proposed addition of formal voting — instead of consensus — and the possibility of sanctions or expulsion was likely to be a hard one to swallow, particularly for the ruling military junta in ASEAN member Myanmar, also called Burma.
A U.S.-proposed U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Myanmar to release all political prisoners, speed up progress toward democracy and stop attacks against ethnic minorities was vetoed Friday by China and Russia.
Before the summit, ASEAN foreign ministers expressed concern over Myanmar’s slow progress toward democracy, but stopped short of backing the U.S. resolution.
“I always look forward to good news,” Myanmar’s ambassador to the Philippines, Thaung Tun, said of the veto.
The Philippines was on high alert for the summit, preceded by three bombings that killed seven people in the country’s strife-torn south. More than 8,000 police and soldiers have been mobilized where the summit is being held, in the central Philippine port of Cebu.
But protesters broke through a police cordon Friday and headed toward one of the main summit venues before being stopped and arrested. Another large protest was held Saturday, with demonstrators burning Arroyo, President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in effigy.