Southeast Asian leaders said on Sunday they would coordinate policies and take joint actions to deal with a worsening global financial crisis battering their export-dependent economies.
The 10 leaders of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) did not spell out any specific actions the group would take in a statement issued after their summit in this Thai seaside resort.
They welcomed expansionary macroeconomic policies, including fiscal stimulus; monetary easing, access to credit, including trade financing; and measures to stimulate domestic demand.
Toward this end, they stressed the importance of coordinating policies and taking joint actions that would be mutually reinforcing at the regional level, the statement said.
Asian economic growth is slowing rapidly as consumers and companies cut back spending amid the worsening global downturn.
In Southeast Asia, Singapore is in recession and economists say Malaysia and Thailand are on the brink, while Indonesian growth has slowed to its weakest pace in more than two years.
Many Asian countries have announced stimulus plans in a bid to stem the economic damage, but exports will not stage a major recovery until consumers in the West start spending again.
The leaders also agreed to stand firm against protectionism and refrain from introducing or raising new trade barriers and called for bold and urgent reform of the international financial system, the statement said.
ROADMAP TO COMMUNITY
ASEAN has begun, with this summit, implementing a roadmap that will turn what used to be a consensus-based group long derided as a talk-shop into a single community of 570 million people with a combined GDP of $2 trillion in six years.
Economic ministers this week agreed to reduce trade barriers and open up some service industries on their way to a single economic community.
The most tangible outcome of the meetings was the signing of a free trade agreement between ASEAN, New Zealand and Australia that could eventually add $48 billion to economies in the region.
In the run-up to the meeting, ASEAN along with China, South Korea and Japan agreed to enlarge their pool of foreign reserves to $120 billion to defend their currencies from the fallout of the financial crisis.
But while ASEAN leaders stand against protectionism, they have defended their own buy-local campaigns, saying they conform with trade rules and are similar to the Buy American clause in the $787 billion U.S. stimulus package.
The summit, whose theme this year was ASEAN Charter for ASEAN Peoples held a dialogue with civil society groups, part of its drive toward creating an integrated socio-political community.
The dialogues, which will become a regular feature of these meetings, got off to a shaky start when Cambodia and Myanmar refused to recognize the groups representing their countries.
Activist groups said the incident showed ASEAN was still succumbing to its tradition of non-interference in each member's affairs and taking decisions by consensus instead of sticking to its rules.
Summit host Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters: We must take gradual steps and encourage wider participation. This is something new. This is the first time and we will continue to make more progress.
A separate summit declaration says the leaders have broadly agreed on the terms of reference for a much-debated human rights body and will make it operational by the end of this year. But is not clear if it will have the power to punish violators.
The leaders urged military-ruled Myanmar to be as inclusive as possible in preparing for elections next year, allow all political parties to participate, and free political prisoners.
The problems with Myanmar illustrate the challenges ASEAN faces in becoming an integrated political community. The group includes two communist states, a military dictatorship, an absolute monarchy, and young democracies.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)