A cultural, political, and economic alliance of 250 million Southeast Asians moves forward March 27 with the scheduled signing of an economic cooperation agreement between the European Community (EC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The agreement, to be cemented at the ASEAN and EC foreign ministers' meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, stresses the nonpolitical, nonmilitary aspects of the ASEAN nations: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia. It also largely skirts the delicate issue of creating a Southeast Asian common market of lowered tariff barriers and increased economic cooperation.
Instead, the agreement begins a dialogue with the European Community of 260 million people to remove trade barriers between the two groups. It provides for most-favored-nation tariff treatment of ASEAN products by the EC.
EC officials are quoted as saying the agreement pledges the EC for the first time to specific measures promoting ASEAN self-reliance and economic strength. The EC will work with ASEAN on such projects as food production, rural development, education, and occupational training.
The two sides will also study removal of trade barriers. ASEAN complains EC tariffs discriminate against its textile exports.
The problem of ASEAN-EC economic relations goes back to at least 1972. But in recent years it has been eclipsed in the public eye by the problem of Indo-China. With differing perspectives, ASEAN members have been groping for a common policy toward Vietnam. They have also been wrestling with the problem of whether to become a de-facto defense alliance to back Thailand in a possible border confrontation with Vietnam.
Indeed, some observers suggest the Indo-China crisis has breathed new life into ASEAN, providing it with a focus of attention and debate.
Earlier this week, Malaysian Foreign Minister Tengku Rithauddeen declared the regional grouping "has no antagonistic intentions toward anyone." He stressed that ASEAN "is primarily a nonmilitary organization motivated solely by our desire to live in peace and harmony with one and all." He also declared the question of transforming ASEAN into a military alliance was not on the conference agenda.
But the question of policy toward Cambodia was expected to come up at the meeting of ASEAN and EC ministers. Philippines Foreign Minister Carlos Romulo predicted there would be a call for an international conference on Cambodia.
ASEAN as a grouping has been cautious about adopting a common stand toward Vietnam, partly because of internal disagreements and partly to avoid a confrontation.
But some individual ASEAN states have pledged aid for Thailand in the event of a border war with Vietnam. Diplomatic sources say both Singapore and Malaysia are ready to provide military supplies for Thailand in event of attack.
At the same time ASEAN has been reluctant to appear too closely aligned with the United States. This reflects both a common desire to maintain the its independence and the inclination of states like Malaysia and Indonesia to avoid a head-on collision with Vietnam.