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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ASEAN Signs Free Trade Blueprint

BALI, Indonesia -- Leaders of 10 Southeast Asian nations ranging from fledgling democracies to an absolute monarchy signed a landmark accord Tuesday aimed at wrestling their disparate region into a European-style economic community by 2020.

The blueprint, dubbed the Bali Concord II, envisions a single market eliminating tariff and non-tariff barriers within an economic grouping encompassing 500 million people and annual trade totaling US$720 billion.

"We have just witnessed a watershed in the history of ASEAN," Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri said. "It will make it possible for our children and their children to live in enduring peace, stability and shared prosperity."

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations wants to band together to counter the burgeoning economic might of India and China, Asian powerhouses that are siphoning off investment and trade seen as essential for Southeast Asia's development.

Leaders who gathered for a two-day ASEAN summit on this resort island acknowledged that the diversity of governance -- which also includes communist autocracies and a military dictatorship -- will complicate efforts to emulate European integration.

ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand.

Talks leading up to the annual summit were complicated by the Myanmar military government's continued detention of democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi -- an embarrassment for fellow ASEAN members.

Despite the grouping's tradition of staying out of domestic politics, members pushed for Suu Kyi's pre-summit release from house arrest as a goodwill gesture -- but without success. Once the summit began, leaders focused on economics, not politics, and backed away from criticizing Myanmar.

The accord signed Tuesday sets deadlines for lowering tariffs and travel restrictions. It aims to create by 2020 the ASEAN Economic Community, modeled on European integration of the 1960s and 1970s -- before the advent of the European Union.

ASEAN was holding meetings with China, Japan, South Korean and India before the summit ends Wednesday.