PHILIPPINES' RAMOS OPEN TO AUSTRALIA JOINING ASEAN

PHILIPPINES' RAMOS OPEN TO AUSTRALIA JOINING ASEAN

Australia's push for greater involvement in Asia was boosted this week when Philippines President Fidel Ramos said Canberra could be allowed to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

''Australia coming into Asean is something that must be considered very carefully by Australia and Asean," Mr. Ramos told the National Press Club in the Australian capital, Canberra."(But) I wouldn't want to venture to suggest that Australia should get into or stay out of Asean," he said.

Asean, a key regional group comprising Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, has become a political and economic force in the region.

It played a major role in the Cambodian peace process that led to U.N.-supervised elections in 1993. Asean is also at the forefront of regional trade liberalization and security concerns.

Mr. Ramos, pointing to the time involved in approving membership for Hanoi, which joined Asean in July, indicated any move to allow Australia to join could take several years.

Australia is already one of several so-called dialogue partners with Asean. The group also is considering a move to expand the Asean Free Trade Agreement to include Australia and New Zealand.

Mr. Ramos backed opening AFTA to Australia and New Zealand.

"Within the frameworks that exist within Asean, meaning AFTA . . . and those that exist here in this part of the world, meaning the CER, the Closer Economic Relations applicable to Australia and New Zealand, that would be a very fruitful combination of the two trading systems, which are for the lowering, the removal if possible, of tariff walls," Mr. Ramos said.

"Personally, and for the Philippines, that would be a very good thing," he said.

Asean is trying to implement AFTA by the year 2003.

Under the plan, tariffs would be cut by 2003 to a maximum 5 percent.