As countries in the region move toward integration, they should rely on their economic and social diversity to forge multi-pronged agreements.
That was one of the main points in the annual report on regional cooperation and integration (RCI) released on Sunday.
Infrastructure and trade cooperation, along with trust building, should be the focus of RCI in the Central Asian Republics, according to the report, a project of the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) and the Asian Development Bank.
In East Asia, where such efforts have made progress, there is a need to improve trade agreements and deepen integration as it pertains to money and finance, the report said.
Achieving an integrated economy, such as the European Union, remains the ultimate goal for Asian countries. And a handful of regional organizations that have surfaced in recent years, are paving the way.
Although there's a long road ahead, Asian countries were urged to follow "a pragmatic step-by-step, bottom-up approach", rather than focusing on a comprehensive Pan-Asian vision similar to the EU's.
Also, instead of a single model, countries within each region should strengthen their mutual integration and subsequently form economic links with other regions in Asia and the Pacific to fulfill specific objectives.
The report said that economic integration among EU members was due partly to the legalistic institutions of members and their goal of political integration.
In Asia, economic interaction has been the foundation of stronger regional ties.
Since the Boao Annual Report was first released in 2005, it was the first time several pages were dedicated to the goal of sub-regional and regional economic cooperation.
There were many opinions on the topic, however.
Warren Truss, the Australian minister for trade, who took part in the weekend forum, said that with the perception that the Doha round was ineffective, some countries had been conducting bilateral and regional deals instead of pinning their hopes on a global trade regime.
While those agreements are seen as potentially detracting from the WTO framework, trade ministers participating in the BFA defended the role of bilateral and regional trade agreements.
Lim Hng Kiang, Singapore's minister for trade and industry, said a proliferation of regional deals could be like "taking away brick by brick" from the global trade regime but added that no danger could come from the agreements if they were subject to high standards.
"We want a global trading regime as epitomized by WTO and Doha, but every bilateral agreement and every RTA should be one more brick toward building that potential," he said.
With multilateral negotiations like Doha often ending with nothing to show, regional deals could create higher standards, Lim said.
He said that bilateral, sub-regional and regional trade deals were actually complementary to a multilateral trade regime.
Truss said he also did not believe that bilateral FTAs necessarily detract from the global trading regime.
"Every time countries reach agreement for a bilateral FTA, they're developing text and solutions that might be able to be multilateralized," he said.
The Doha round collapsed last year in light of wide differences especially in the area of agriculture.
(China Daily April 24, 2007)