Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews/Agencies) Once known as Asian tigers, South-East Asian countries must speed economic reforms if they do not want to lose the foreign investment race to China, this according to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who laid down the guidelines for the East Asia summit scheduled to start next Wednesday in a Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The goal of the summit, which brings together members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and six other Asian countries with strong interests in the region, is to further regional economic integration and co-operation between the ASEAN area and China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. But China's competition, which is shutting everybody out of world markets, will be an important point of discussion as well.
China is already the seventh largest economy in the world and last year racked up US$ 61 billion in foreign investments, more than twice that of Southeast Asia.
"China is now one of the most important players not only in the region, but also in the world," Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said yesterday at a press conference in the Malaysian capital.
Bilateral trade between China and ASEAN grew by 25 per cent in the first half of this year, and China is the bloc's fourth-largest trading partner. Trade volume for the first six months of this year was nearly US$ 60 billion.
ASEAN includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, a region of 530 million people with a combined economy of more than US$ 1.4 trillion
On Saturday, Russia signed an economic co-operation accord with ASEAN, but Moscow must still wait in the wings, anxious to join the East Asia Summit in coming years. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is going to the summit, will just have to observe proceedings for the time being since Russia has not yet met key prerequisites for being invited at the discussion table.
In the meantime, "the grouping must do more to liberalise economies and remove investment barriers. We have set the target of an ASEAN Economic Community by 2020. We should focus our efforts and try to bring forward the completion of the current economic initiatives, perhaps to 2015," said Singapore PM Lee.
The summit is also set to tackle other important regional issues such as co-operation in fighting the bird flu epidemic and protecting human rights in single countries.
Officially, ASEAN has in fact called on the government of Myanmar to free political prisoners, in particular Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy.