Vientiane (AsiaNews/Agencies) This morning the Conference of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) opened in Vientiane, Laos. Member states (Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) will discuss European-style economic integration, terrorism and other regional threats.
Lao authorities have thrown up an imposing security cordon around the capital against possible violence. Two blasts on the border with Thailand last month have undermined confidence in the country's tranquility.
On the top of the agenda are a free trade accord between South-East Asia and China, an anti-terrorism pact and efforts by Myanmar's neighbours to spur its stalled moves toward democracy to end unwelcome international attention on the region's own human rights record.
Under normal circumstances, ASEAN does not deal with members' domestic issues, but in this case it might call upon Yangon to clean up its act.
ASEAN has been working towards the creation of a single free trade area of some 530 million people with a combined GDP of US$ 1 trillion (765 billion). The goal is to set up a European-style economic community by 2010 which would attract foreign investments and part of the business that is currently going to China and India. At the same time, AEAN members want closer economic ties with Asia's two giants.
Creating an EEC-type community in South-East Asia is however a major challenge. Not only do levels of economic development vary significantly from member to member but so do political systems: the range goes from an absolute monarchy in Brunei to a fledgling democracy in Thailand.
Next Monday and Tuesday, the heads of state and government of the ten ASEAN countries will arrive along with those of China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
On Tuesday ASEAN and China are expected to sign an accord to set up a free trade area aimed at removing tariffs on goods by 2010. Cuts should start kicking in next year. ASEAN countries represent China's fifth-largest trading partner and in the last ten years, bilateral trade rose by 35.3 per cent to US$ 84.61 billion.
ASEAN and Japan are also planning a common strategy in the fight against terrorism.
First-time host Laos wants to profit from the summit in order to attract foreign investments and develop the tourism industry. In this impoverished communist nation of 5 million many are surviving just above subsistence levels.
For the occasion, Lao authorities have spruced up Vientiane, a sleepy and dusty capital on the Mekong River, whilst troops are stationed throughout the city to counter possible security threats.
The government is concerned about 'bad elements', a term that typically refers to anti-government Hmong militants.