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International relations

'Sense of urgency' lingers as ministers strive toward integration

Mustapa Mohamed, Malaysia’s trade minister, speaks to reporters about negotiations toward the ASEAN Economic Community in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday.

KUALA LUMPUR -- Wary of criticism that economic integration has been moving at a snail's pace, ASEAN trade ministers on Saturday pledged to hasten talks on turning their political and economic bloc into a single market and production base.

     "There are a lot of skeptics in the business community," Mustapa Mohamed, Malaysia's trade minister, told reporters.

     Mustapa, fresh from chairing a meeting with his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said each of the 10 member countries will approach their goals "with a sense of urgency to finish some unfinished businesses."

     So far, 91.5% of the measures set out in 2007 in a blueprint for the ASEAN Economic Community has been achieved. The community members initially set a target of achieving 100% of the initiatives by the end of this year. But, Mustapa indicated, the members have fallen behind the timeline and can only reach 95% at best.

     Among the outstanding issues is a trade facility -- an ASEAN single window -- that would unify customs procedures. Land transport is another area where there is no consensus; Malaysia, for one, is balking at allowing vehicles from certain other countries to pass its borders, ostensibly for security reasons. Allowing 100% foreign ownership in certain service sector industries remains another unresolved issue.

     Vast economic discrepancies exist within ASEAN, which groups the more developed economies of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand with the less developed states of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

     Even so, Mustapa said there is no going back and that 2015 will be a "key milestone."

     "We have agreed that we should be looking at success stories," he added.

     One thing the group wants to do immediately is allow a freer flow of engineers, architects and other skilled workers across ASEAN borders. The bloc has signed an agreement on the mutual recognition of professionals in seven sectors but has yet to implement it.

     On Friday, during an informal dinner, the ministers discussed how the recent currency devaluations as well as falling commodity prices are affecting regional trade. Mustapa said today's uncertainties underscore the importance of economic integration, which ASEAN ministers will discuss further with their dialogue partners, including China, Japan, South Korea and the U.S., in meetings scheduled over the next three days.

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