Fearing U.S. Protectionism, ASEAN Pledges Unity

An Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit meeting concluded in Thailand on March 1 with a renewed consensus (.pdf) against protectionism and in support of free trade. In a rare moment of unity for the alliance's 10 members, the ASEAN foreign ministers signed a free-trade agreement with Australia and New Zealand, while finance ministers of ASEAN Plus Three -- China, Japan, and South Korea -- expanded their emergency foreign currency fund from $80 billion to $120 billion.

ASEAN's anti-protectionist stance appears to be driven by concerns over exports to the United States, in light of President Barack Obama's campaign promises and his economic stimulus package's "Buy American" provision to support domestic manufacturers. U.S. Ambassador for ASEAN Affairs Scot Marciel acknowledged these fears in an interview with Asia Times Online, admitting that "in the region, there are some people who have put the blame on us."

ASEAN has already suffered from diminished demand for exports among its largest markets, the United States and European Union. Singapore, the region's most developed economy, is officially in recession and reported a 35.7 percent drop in total trade in January 2009. The export-dependent economies of other major players like Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia have been similarly hard hit.

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