Asean plans tribunal to settle trade rows

Singapore hails the move, saying it will allow independent handling of disputes and keep them from becoming politicised.

Asean economic ministers are working on a plan to establish an independent tribunal to resolve trade disputes.

In an effort to boost trade and investment in the region, the ministers, ending a two-day meeting here yesterday, also agreed to harmonise Customs procedures and work with the private sector to boost the competitiveness of Asean’s key industries.

Brunei’s Trade Minister, Abdul Rahman bin Dato Mohammad Talib, who chaired the discussion among the 10 ministers, told reporters:

‘These issues have been considered as hampering the implementation of the Asean free trade area. We will discuss the more concrete steps at the Asean summit in Bali in October.’

Top on the agenda, however, appeared to be Asean’s plan to create a tribunal.

Singapore’s Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo said that it would ‘really break new ground and bring Asean to a new level’.

The idea, he said, stemmed from a need to create a dispute-settlement mechanism like in other trading blocs such as the North American Free Trade Area and in Europe. He noted that in Asean, disputes handled by ministers tended to become politicised. With independent tribunals, there was little chance of that happening.

‘If anything, the issue is depoliticised,’ he said.

‘It will be legal arguments based on agreements that have been drawn up. This will give tremendous confidence to investors that when they have problems, they will be resolved in an objective and impartial manner.’

He said the ministers would discuss the matter next month when they meet in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, before raising it formally with Asean leaders at a summit in Bali in October.

The overall objective, he said, was to move in the direction of an Asean economic community.

He said: ‘The more we are one economic space, one productive space and one market, the more we will strengthen our competitive position with respect to other regions in the world, and the more we will be able to attract investments.’

An Asean report said recently that South-east Asia, which in the 1980s and early 1990s attracted capital from around the world, was now struggling to lure investors whose focus has shifted to China since Beijing joined the World Trade Organisation more than a year ago.

The task had been complicated by the Bali bombing in October last year that highlighted the growing threat of terrorism in the region.

But the Asean economic ministers appeared to rise to the challenge by identifying ways to bring money in. Besides reducing trade obstacles like barriers and harmonising Customs, they also laid out a proposal to work with the private sector.

According to their plan, Singapore will coordinate e- business and health care, the Philippines will become the coordinator for the electronic industry and Indonesia will coordinate the wood-based and automotive industries.

Myanmar will focus on the agro-based industry and fisheries.

Thailand will be in charge of airlines and tourism, and Malaysia will take charge of rubber-based products, textiles and garments.

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