DAVOS - The strength of ASEAN is at its greatest when members work together, Southeast Asian countries said on Friday at a panel discussing the future of the regional bloc amid ongoing territorial spats with China.
"We are strong if we negotiate as a group," said Vietnam's foreign minister, Pham Binh Minh, insisting that the future of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was through deeper integration despite the preference of non-ASEAN heavyweight China for country-to-country ties.
"The unity of ASEAN is a very important factor," the minister said, though he said on some matters, including territorial conflicts, bilateral dealings could not be avoided.
The 10-member regional grouping has a number of complex issues on the table, including territorial disputes between Beijing and several ASEAN members -- particularly the Philippines and Vietnam -- over the South China Sea, as well as ambitious economic integration plans.
ASEAN, a region of 600 million people, wants to establish a common market and manufacturing base to better compete with China and India, but there are growing doubts about whether it will meet a 2015 target.
Anthony Fernandes, chief executive of low cost airline Air Asia, said ASEAN's potential was huge.
"Asia is not just about China and India. It is a fantastic consumption market," he said, sitting on the same panel.
"The power to consume is immense (and) the majority of those new customers come from ASEAN," he added.
Gregory Domingo, the Philippines' trade minister, said that ASEAN nations were much stronger in trade talks when they negotiated as a group.
"The value is that as a group we can negotiate better agreements with these bigger parties. If we were alone... we would get the short end of the stick," he said.
President Thein Sein of long-isolated Myanmar, which took the ASEAN chairmanship this year, hailed the spirit of cooperation and coordination within the group which helped bring his country back to the international community.
Since its creation in 1967, "ASEAN has been the model of regional cooperation," the president said.
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