Economic ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations adopted Wednesday fresh regional economic cooperation framework that would bring together the 10 ASEAN members, Japan, China, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Indonesian Coordinating Minister for the Economy Hatta Rajasa told a press conference after the meeting in Bali that the ministers will recommend that ASEAN leaders endorse the so-called ASEAN Framework on Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership when they meet on Thursday for a summit.
In their recommendation report, obtained by Kyodo News, the ministers say the framework involving ASEAN and its six "free trade area partners" should be created "with the view to ensuring that ASEAN maintains its distinct advantage that would enable it to play a central role in the rapidly changing regional economic landscape."
The report asks that the leaders of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam to mandate the establishment of three working groups on trade in goods and services as well as investment.
According to Rajasa, the framework consists of general principles of free trade areas that had been previously signed by ASEAN and its six FTA partners, including differential treatment for ASEAN's less-developed members such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. He said other non-ASEAN countries could also become parties to the framework.
The ASEAN move reflects a deep concern among some member countries that the regional grouping could be sidelined by the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative, according to Rahmat Pramono, director for economic cooperation at Indonesia's Foreign Ministry.
The proposal also came up amid worries that the steps taken by four ASEAN members -- Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand -- to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership could damage ASEAN's unity.
"Dynamic developments are taking place in the regional architecture, including the ongoing negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific and the expansion of the East Asia Summit to include the United States of America and Russia," the economic ministers' report says.
"ASEAN would need to respond in a timely manner to ensure its central role in the shaping of the architecture for East Asian integration," it adds. The Wednesday meeting also adopted the ASEAN Framework for Equitable Economic Development, which includes a set of guiding principles for inclusive and sustainable growth in ASEAN.