By Yoo Choonsik
SEOGWIPO, South Korea, June 1 (Reuters) - South Korea vowed on Monday to boost ties with its Southeast Asian neighbours to jointly fend off a larger threat to their export-driven economies from growing trade protectionism in Western economies.
President Lee Myung-bak pledged to boost aid contributions and transfer more economic development know-how during the initial session of his country’s first summit with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
"Under the influence of globalisation, regional cooperation within Asia has become inevitable. I believe South Korea-ASEAN relations have reached a point to leap forward," Lee told leaders from the region’s biggest grouping.
He offered increased aid contributions, tailored economic cooperation projects and alliance in dealing with such global issues as climate change.
Analysts said it was the right step for South Korea as ASEAN countries offer strong potential as future export markets and investment destinations, although Seoul will have to compete with Japan and China.
"South Korea has focused on relations with the advanced countries but the time has come, actually already a bit late, to shift the focus toward the region in view of the region’s huge potentials," said Kwon Yul, an economist at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy (KIEP).
The two-day summit on South Korea’s resort island of Jeju comes after its larger and closer neighbours, Japan and China, separately offered billions of dollars in mostly financial programmes this year to help ASEAN countries.
Economic powerhouses Japan, China and South Korea have all been participating in regional cooperation initiatives organised by ASEAN.
Several ASEAN members have been weathering the global downturn -- which has caused some Western nations to consider protectionist steps -- better than many countries and are expected to maintain solid growth over the coming years.
South Korea’s two-way trade with the region rose by 25 percent during 2008 alone, to $90 billion, and President Lee said Seoul aims to boost the amount to $150 billion by 2015.
ASEAN is now the third largest export market for South Korea and the second biggest destination for investment. (Editing by Jerry Norton)