THE ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and their future partners from Burma, Cambodia and Laos left Bangkok at the weekend congratulating themselves on a job well done, and some ground well laid for key trade talks next year. In the meeting rooms and on the golf courses, the seven Asean leaders had reached a consensus on widening the group to include Burma, Cambodia and Laos, speed up tariff cuts and tear down barriers on service industries. Nearly two decades after Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore formed a loose alignment, later to be joined by Brunei, Asean now sees itself as a strong emerging force in the world economic order. The latest Bangkok agreement, if followed through, would have laid the foundations of a community which can look North America, Europe, Japan and China firmly in the eye. The confidence shown by the leaders was a long way from the nervousness that prompted the formation of Asean in 1967. Then it was a political organisation of developing countries, some of which were hostile to each other, but driven mainly by the domino theory of a communist victory in Vietnam. Now the rumble of guns in Vietnam has long been replaced by that of the machinery of market forces, and the former threat is now a member. When Burma, Cambodia, and Laos eventually join up, Asean will be a community of more than 400 million, and is yearly gaining in self-sufficiency and becoming less dependent on traditional markets. There were many sceptics around when Asean was formed. There still are, at least as far as its economic, rather than political, achievements are concerned. No-one denies the extraordinary development of its members, but they do question the role the organisation has played in fuelling the growth. 'I can't see anything that Asean has achieved which the individual countries would not have achieved by themselves,' an economist said. A disappointing verdict for the army of ministers, secretariat staff and other officials which met in Bangkok for the 5th Summit, and one which may have to be dramatically revised as the new economic agenda of Asean begins to roll out. If the critics are to be silenced, it is likely to be the Asean Free Trade Agreement (Afta) which will change their minds. Some might ask why anyone needs Afta when the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is now in place. But Afta's time frame for cutting tariffs is, in many cases, shorter than the global targets. Also, Afta is as much about creating the appearance of an integrated market which will attract investment, in a credit starved world, as it is in easing the cross-border flow of goods. Last week the leaders ruled that their ministers were being too conservative in their timetable for major tariff cuts under Afta, and pulled back from 2003 to 2000 the target for the reduction of tariffs to between 0-5 per cent. But some supporters believe the key element in Asean is the style in which it is reaching agreements. Draconian schedules and lists of products to be included in trade agreements are not Asean's way. No member wishes to be seen to be forcing deals down the throats of unwilling neighbours. The United States' beating of the war drums over trade issues with China, Japan and others are seen as an insensitive and ultimately futile approach. The reluctance of Indonesia to include certain agricultural products in the tariff-slashing target was accommodated, even though many believe that its arguments for exemption were as much to do with the powerful forces which control many of its industries as they were with safeguarding its farmers. Critics argue that this willingness to reach a consensus comes at a high cost, and Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand enjoy too many exemptions, over-protecting large chunks of their economy. The members may share a common target for cutting tariffs, but the speed at which they get there is far from uniform. Even Thai officials acknowledge that theirs is the slowest pace of reduction. When Asean grows from seven to ten, these strains could worsen. The original members have come a long way since Asean was formed, the newcomers are still in the earliest stages of economic development. Singapore citizens enjoy a US$22,000 a year annual income, those in Laos struggle on $300. There are huge political differences too. Democracy, Asian style, is entrenched in the majority of present members. Cambodia, Laos, and most of all, Burma, are still in various shades of the dark ages in their political development. Asean ministers may prefer to live and let live, but Western political pressure on regimes regarded as dictatorial will almost inevitably pull their neighbours into the arguments. The problems that may lie ahead were spelled out by Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. 'We acknowledged in our discussions that an enlarged Asean membership will create both opportunities and challenges. New members will have to adjust quickly to Asean's values and corporate culture,' he said. They would, he warned, face difficulties discharging their obligations within Asean, including phasing in their commitments in Afta. The Asean leaders, who have agreed to meet informally every year, may have to approach these growing pains head on in the meeting rooms, rather than on the golf course, but the aim of finding soft solutions rather than imposing hard demands is unlikely to change. And Asean's approach could well serve as a blueprint for the bigger trade organisations, all of which have key meetings in Asia next year. The biggest of all is the WTO which meets in Singapore next December. Last week, WTO director-General Renato Ruggerio called for a 'non-confrontational agenda' for the meeting, and stressed the need for consensus. The legalistic approach adopted by the West could be extremely unsettling, according to some trade experts. David Dodwell, a consultant in Hong Kong points to the dangers faced by the Uruguay round. 'Those talks ground on for eight years, but it was all in jeopardy until the last minute. It could all have come to nothing.' He said the key to pulling countries into line was showing them the benefits of free trade. Hong Kong, he pointed out was a fine example. Its open approach to financial markets had made it a leader in this sector in Asia, outside of Tokyo, and in some areas it was undoubtedly No 1. China's surprise announcement at the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) meeting in Osaka in November that it was voluntarily cutting import charges on a wide range of goods, was an example of a country recognising that opening up was in its own interests, and not some sort of Western plot to undermine the economy. There will be more opportunities for expressions of goodwill in the region next year. The next Apec meeting is to be held in the Philippines, while the Asean-EU ministers meet in Kuala Lumpur in March. The confidence of Asean delegates in their own approach to trade means that former hard liners, from the US and elsewhere, attending these gatherings are going to have to listen more and thump tables less.