SHIPPERS in member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have decided that greater transparency will be an ''absolute necessity'' in the establishment of freight rates and other surcharges levied by conference lines and rate agreements. The decision was taken at the 16th annual meeting of the Federation of ASEAN Shippers' Councils (FASC), held in Hong Kong this week, which was hosted by the Hong Kong Shippers' Council. Among other issues of common concern raised at the meeting was the implementation of and constant increases in terminal handling charges (THCs). Delegates felt that the time when ASEAN shippers' councils would sit back and allow shipping conferences and rate agreements to unilaterally set new charges without transparency were over. ''Unreasonable rates and surcharges increases would add substantially to the cost of our external trade, thereby affecting our competitiveness,'' the federation said in a statement after the meeting. Members and associates - who included Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia and South Korea - passed a resolution calling on their respective governments to enact legislation requiring transparency and negotiations between shippers and carriers before changes aremade to rates and surcharges. The meeting decided to go with the minimalist position based on the Australian model for compulsory negotiations between shippers and carriers. FASC members will also urge their governments to support Articles 9 to 17 of the UN Code of Conduct for Liner Conferences to protect the interest of shippers. The federation agreed to continue the process of dialogue and partnership between shippers and carriers. Later in the meeting it was resolved to invite representatives of conferences and rate agreements to participate in future FASC annual meetings. An item will be included in future meeting agendas for a dialogue session with conferences and rate agreements. At a press conference, FASC chairman and Malaysia's Deputy Minister of International Trade and Industry, Chua Jui Meng, said the shipping lines and rate agreements will be asked to give one month's notice to discuss any rate increases and surcharges. ''If we do not disagree, we will want two months to implement the increase. If we wish to negotiate, there should be no increase during the negotiation period,'' he said. Mr Chua said the conferences and rate agreements were aberrations of the principles of free trade in which East Asian countries believe. He said that for more than a year conferences and rate agreements had failed to provide an itemised list of the charges they said they were recovering through THCs and other levies. ''It is ridiculous that we have been talking to each other for a year and the divide has not been closed,'' he said. It was pointed out at the meeting that while port charges in ASEAN had remained unchanged for the past years, THCs and other charges had risen substantially.