The three-day 21st Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and related meetings with the bloc's dialogue partners will open November 18 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia amid a faltering world economy and regional tensions.
Officials said that economic issues, along with political- security integration in the regional grouping, will top the agenda in the ASEAN leaders' meeting.
"Economic issues, particularly on how to narrow the development gap within the bloc and to facilitate economic integration, will be the core issues to be discussed in the summit," Dr. Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, which closely works with ASEAN, told Xinhua in an interview.
In 2007, ASEAN leaders pledged to achieve economic integration in the region by the end of 2015 when the bloc will have a single market and production base that would ensure the free movement of goods, services, investments and skilled labor among the 600 million people in the grouping.
In all previous summits since 2007, the leaders of ASEAN continued to discuss ways and means on how to create a single ASEAN market in 2015.
Experts believe that development gap, poor infrastructure, lack of human resources and capacity, good governance, and low participation from the private sector are the main stumbling blocks in achieving the establishment of a single ASEAN market.
"We need to invest more in both hard and soft infrastructure and ask the private sector, particularly those in small and medium enterprises, to be more active in the regional integration process, " Vannarith said, adding that best practices in entrepreneurship and innovation should be further promoted.
The lingering debt crisis in the euro zone and the weak US recovery could continue to have a negative impact on Asia's emerging economies, which are home to low-priced manufacturing goods and have long been dependent on exports to developed countries.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects the euro zone's economy to contract 0.4 percent this year, while China's remarkable growth is forecast to decelerate to 7.8 percent while the US could expand by only about 2.2 percent.
In the upcoming ASEAN summit and a series of meetings with dialogue partners, the leaders of both ASEAN member-countries and key Asia Pacific powers will launch Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a more ambitious trade plan designed to rev up economic linkages and spur growth among ten ASEAN nations and six dialogue partners, namely, Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.
The leaders are expected to iron out kinks in their vision to transform the regional grouping into the world's biggest integrated market comprising of over 3 billion people with a combined GDP of about $17.23 trillion.
"The guiding principles and objectives for negotiating a RCEP had been prepared and will be endorsed by the leaders at the 21st ASEAN Summit, "Cambodian Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh announced at an ASEAN Symposium on October 31
The ASEAN leaders are also expected to work out on measures that would enhance regional connectivity and bolster the bloc's political-security and social-cultural integration.
A slew of documents, including the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD), Terms of Reference of the ASEAN Institute for Peace and Reconciliation and ASEAN Agreement on Trafficking in Persons (TBC), are expected to be adopted in the Phnom Penh meeting. Other regional security issues of common concern, such as ethnic and religious tension in Myanmar, South China Sea, East China Sea, and the peace process in the Philippines, are also expected to be included in the agenda, according to Dr. Vannarith.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
China's position on the issue has been consistent: that it was willing to discuss the issue with claimant countries on the bilateral level but without the interference of other regional or international parties.
Although China has been consistent in saying that the disputed islands in the South China Sea belong to China since ancient times, it was willing to turn the disputed waters into an area of peace, friendship and cooperation.
During the meeting of the 15th ASEAN-China Summit, a joint Statement of the Heads of State/Government of the ASEAN Member States and the People's Republic of China on the 10th Anniversary of the DOC will be endorsed.
China's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei reiterated that China is open to consultations with the ASEAN on the conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
In the forthcoming meeting, Cambodia will play an important role as the ASEAN Chair, particularly in promoting a more straightforward, balanced, and constructive dialogues among claimant countries in the South China Sea and other maritime rifts, according report by Gregory Poling, a research associate with the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, newly-elected US President Barack Obama, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, India Prime Minister Manmohan Sigh, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key have all confirmed to attend the 7th East Asia Summit with ASEAN leaders.