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ASEAN Comes of Age
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The ambitious agenda the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) adopted in Cebu, the Philippines, on Saturday will hopefully transform the region.

It is moving the region faster towards a single market and reshaping the regional grouping of ASEAN to meet the demands of the 21st century.

Leaders of the 10 ASEAN member countries affirmed their strong commitment to accelerating the establishment of a free trade area by 2015.

The move would liberalize the movement of goods, services, investment and capital across a region of almost 570 million people, around one-tenth of the world's population.

Southeast Asia is moving, though very slowly, towards economic integration.

Once established, the region will be the largest trading bloc in the world.

On the political front, integration is also in the making. The group signed a commitment to create ASEAN's first charter, aimed at turning it into a European Union-style entity with binding rules and regulations.

The signed accord states that ASEAN has matured into a regional organization and is expanding its role as an integrated regional economy and a dynamic force in maintaining regional peace and stability.

This is a region where economies grow on the principle of equality and mutual benefit, with a plurality of cultures. The member nations are resolved to create a charter as the crowning achievement of ASEAN's 40 years. The charter is scheduled to be adopted in November.

On Saturday the leaders also signed their first convention on fighting terrorism, making it easier to track suspects and money across borders, share intelligence information and extradite suspects from one ASEAN country to another.

Even though the region has suffered a series of bloody attacks in recent years, leaders also pledged to try to reintegrate convicted terrorists into society a sharp departure from the usual Western approaches.

All these documents herald a new, mature outlook of Southeast Asia.

China has been coming closer to ASEAN, evidenced in a landmark economic cooperation deal reached on Sunday.

Cooperation between China and ASEAN has already delivered tangible benefits to the whole region.

(China Daily January 15, 2007)

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