By Steven Gutkin
The Associated Press
BALI, Indonesia - Ten Southeast Asian nations signed an ambitious accord Tuesday establishing a Europe-like economic community by 2020 in a region where democracies neighbor dictatorships and rapidly growing economies abut financial basket cases.
But the Association of Southeast Asian Nations emphasized that the agreement, part of a blueprint dubbed Bali Concord II, was limited to economic relations. It would not create a political union like Western Europe's or a military alliance akin to NATO, although it calls for a regional security community to combat terrorism and other transnational crimes.
"We have just witnessed a watershed in the history of ASEAN," Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri said. "That will make it possible for our children and their children to live in a state of enduring peace, stability and shared prosperity."
The Southeast Asian leaders chose Bali as a symbolic venue for their two-day summit that opened Tuesday. Terrorists blew up two nightclubs on this tropical island a year ago, killing 202 people.
Troops in combat gear patrolled outside the summit venue, and military men in shorts rode jet skis before beachfront hotels catering to Asian and European tourists.
ASEAN, which has been criticized for doing little, Tuesday made some of its most far-reaching commitments - ones that some think will be nearly impossible to carry out.
The accord signed Tuesday sets deadlines for lowering tariffs and travel restrictions in the ASEAN region, which encompasses 500 million people and trade totaling $720 billion a year.
ASEAN includes the fledgling democracies of Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia; the limited democracies of Malaysia and Singapore; the communist regimes of Laos and Vietnam; an absolute monarchy in Brunei; and a military dictatorship in Myanmar.
Despite those differences, Southeast Asian countries want to band together to counter the burgeoning economic might of India and China, which are siphoning off investment and trade considered essential for Southeast Asia's development.
Underscoring ASEAN's desire to avoid politics, its leaders shied away from criticizing Myanmar's military rulers for their continued detention of pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
5/3 expanding office campus
Amtrak stretches route to Philly and New York
GE to put new face forward
Get real in boosting your firm
Sony debuts new 'crossover' game
Tyco figures finally getting day in court
Bank One puts Kuertz over Cincinnati network
SE Asian leaders aim for ties like Europe's
Peale: What's the buzz?