8:11 PM Jul 23, 1996


Jakarta 22 July (Martin Khor) -- In a joint communique issued after a two-day Asean Ministerial Meeting, the Foreign Ministers of the seven ASEAN countries have reaffirmed the regional grouping's opposition to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment as well as other new issues in the World Trade Organisation.

Earlier, President Suharto of Indonesia criticised the efforts of some developed countries to introduce non-trade issues in the WTO, which would denigrate the developing countries and debilitate the WTO itself.

Indonesian Foreign Minister, Ali Alatas, also said closer cooperation was needed in the face of moves by developed countries to forge a multilateral investment agreement which would "downgrade" the interests of developing countries.

ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) comprises Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam. The joint communique, issued on 21 July at the end of the Meeting, contains a section on the WTO Ministerial Conference.

The Asean Foreign Ministers endorsed the Asean Economic Ministers' position "to oppose the inclusion of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, as it stands, into the agenda of the Singapore Ministerial Conference."

The communique also said: "The Foreign Ministers reiterated that ASEAN should oppose any attempt to include issues which were not trade-related, such as corruption and social clause, at the Singapore Ministerial Conference (SMC). The Ministers noted that other issues, such as competition policy, may not be mature enough for inclusion at the SMC."

The Ministers added that the SMC should critically review the implementation of the Uruguay Round agreements and seek a Ministerial mandate to start the preparatory work on the built-in agenda, including agriculture.

"The Foreign Ministers resolved that Asean Members should actively work towards a successful conclusion of the negotiations on basic telecommunications and maritime transport services and that other WTO countries should be urged to also exert themselves with a view to achieving that end."

In opening the Meeting on 20 July, President Suharto made a lengthy reference to the WTO, in which he raised the issue of the need for equity in the WTO trading system and urged Asean to prevent the SMC from being "sidetracked" by non-trade issues.

He said the establishment of the WTO had raised hopes that the international community would at last be able to rely on a multilateral instrument that can regulate the global trading system in a more comprehensive, transparent, equitable and balanced way.

"But just because the WTO has been launched does not mean that the inequities and the imbalances of the regime of world trade will be automatically redressed. The rules and regulations of the WTO have to be complied with," said Suharto.

"In this regard, we must express concern over the efforts of some developed countries to side-track the deliberations in the forthcoming WTO Ministerial Meeting so that the focus will be on matters extraneous to trade. Such efforts will not only denigrate the developing countries, it will also ultimately debilitate the WTO itself.

"To deal with this concern, the Asean countries need to consolidate their common position against taking up the non-trade issues proposed by the developed countries for discussion at that WTO Ministerial Meeting.

"I should like to emphasise that, considering the broad range of genuine and urgent trade concerns that the WTO must address, issues for deliberation at the WTO Ministerial Meeting must be confined to and must not deviate from the agenda agreed upon at the Marrakesh Meeting.

"Moreover we should do all we can to ensure that the issue of strict compliance by all members with the results of the Uruguay Round should be squarely and effectively addressed."

In his speech at the opening session, Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas said Asean countries could take advantage of globalisation and liberalisation, and should therefore preserve in active involvement in such institutions as the WTO and APEC.

"We are however alarmed at the tendency of developed countries to resort to a new form of protectionism in the guise of linking labour standards and other social and environmental concerns to trade," he added.

"Not only would this stifle the trading capabilities of developing countries but could also lead to the unravelling of the hard-won balance of rights, obligations and interests of all parties that the WTO is mandated to foster."

The Minister called upon all trading partners to "refrain from overloading the agenda of the WTO with issues extraneous to trade. Let us together nurture it as the guardian of a predictable, non-discriminatory multilateral trading system and the guarantor of the rights of the weaker trading partner against unilateral and arbitrary actions of the strong."

Ali Alatas also said that the sheer magnitude of international capital flows across borders and the growth of vast capital markets could exert a destabilizing influence on national economies in the region.

"It has therefore become absolutely necessary for Asean economies to increase their cooperation in the field of investment so as to mitigate the possible negative impact of such massive capital flows.

"Moreover, closer investment cooperation will also be required in the face of moves by certain developed countries to forge a multilateral investment agreement which appears to downgrade the interests of recipient developing countries."

The statements by Asean leaders in Jakarta are the latest indication of the opposition in the region to the introduction of new issues in the WTO.

Earlier this month, Malaysia's International Trade and Industry Minister, Rafidah Aziz, said Malaysia was opposed to the inclusion of trade and investment and other issues (such as labour standards and competition policy) in the agenda of the WTO Ministerial Conference.

Following their own meeting, the Asean Foreign Ministers and other officials will in the next few days be having dialogue meetings in Jakarta with Asean's partner countries, comprising seven developing countries (including China and India) and 21 developed countries (including the European Union countries, the US, Japan, Australia and Canada).