BALI, Indonesia -- Seeking to avoid economic domination by larger neighbors siphoning off trade and investment, 10 Southeast Asian nations tried yesterday to co-opt their main competitors -- China, India, and Japan -- by concluding a flurry of strategic agreements with them.
At its summit, the Association f Southeast Asian Nations also created an ambitious network of security treaties meant to underpin its plans for a European-like economic community by 2020.
China and India became the first outside powers to accede to the group's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, its founding nonaggression pact, which renounces the use of force and calls for greater political and economic cooperation.
The two countries and Japan signed separate agreements with ASEAN yesterday aimed at reducing trade barriers as a precursor to an eventual free-trade zone spanning most of Asia.
Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong of Singapore said an Asian common market was necessary because of the success of other trade blocs, primarily the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Many in the Southeast Asian grouping have been concerned that their larger Asian neighbors will overpower their group economically, attracting investment and trade needed for development in a region whose 500 million inhabitants face huge disparities in wealth.
The association, known as ASEAN, comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Thailand. It was founded in 1967 as a loose anti-communist grouping, but over the years has steadily evolved into an association that includes communist nations as well as an absolute monarchy (Brunei) and a military dictatorship (Burma).
In the past, many have dismissed the group as all talk and no action. But its latest summit saw an unprecedented number of accords that aim to transform the region.
A free-trade agreement with China, planned for 2010, would create the world's largest market, with 1.7 billion consumers.
"It's good for the region. It's good for the rest of the world," said Li Zhaoxing, China's foreign minister.