SINGAPORE (AP): Southeast Asian countries must together build a cohesive economic community to efficiently compete with China and India, but not at the expense of the environment, Singapore's prime minister said Saturday.
Addressing a gathering of business and investment leaders ahead of the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit starting Monday in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said ASEAN should be the root of Asian economic growth.
"Our countries offer complementary advantages to businesses, and a neutral core around which the rest of Asia can build economic ties, and a regional framework of cooperation," Lee said in his keynote address at the ASEAN business summit.
"To sustain this, ASEAN has to become more integrated and cohesive. Only thus can we keep up with larger and stronger economies like China and India," he said.
ASEAN countries agreed last year to form an ASEAN Economic Community - a single market and production base with a free flow of goods, services, investments and skilled labor - by 2015.
Member nations will sign a comprehensive blueprint for the creation of the European Union-style single market next week, Lee said.
"The blueprint sets out clear milestones for removing trade barriers among member countries and for implementing smooth and efficient business processes across borders," Lee said.
The ASEAN market is more than half a billion people strong with a combined gross domestic product - the sum of all goods and services - in excess of US$500 billion.
The blueprint, a draft of which was earlier seen by The Associated Press, allows flexibility in the enforcement of free-trade obligations - provided that has been agreed in advance and would not delay the overall progress and implementation of the plan.
Lee said a more integrated ASEAN will be better placed to strengthen relations with its trading and investment partners, noting that the regional bloc has been negotiating free trade agreements with China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the European Union.
The prime minister also said ASEAN must strengthen efforts to address energy security and climate change, although he acknowledged that would be a challenge for many countries.
"Unbridled growth without heed to environmental consequences will ultimately be disastrous. But neither can countries lightly sacrifice economic growth and higher living standards for our peoples," he said.
He urged member countries to "play their part" as responsible members of the international community and participate in global efforts to find effective solutions to environmental issues.
ASEAN consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. (**)