Southeast Asian nations launched a nearly $500 million fund to build infrastructure, pooling resources in hopes of closing the gap between the dynamic region and major wealthy economies.
In a step toward an ambitious goal of regional economic integration by 2015, finance ministers of the ASEAN bloc on Saturday said the fund would offer loans to build roads, railways and other projects without direct foreign assistance.
"Our community is now being built with speed. This is a milestone," ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said after ministers signed the pact in Washington on the sidelines of annual World Bank and IMF meetings.
"The time for donations, the time for just gifts, is over. We have to be very innovative, we have to be very collaborative in our approach."
Despite booming growth rates and world-famous buildings, ASEAN on a per capita basis lags behind major advanced nations in access to highways, railways, clean water and electricity.
The ASEAN Infrastructure Fund will start with $485.2 million and aims to finance six projects a year. By 2020, ASEAN hopes the fund will offer $4 billion in loans and that its total leverage will be worth more than $13 billion.
The fund will be based in Malaysia, the biggest contributor with a $150 million initial investment. Indonesia is the second-largest contributor with $120 million.
The Asian Development Bank, the Manila-based regional financial institution to which Japan and the United States are the largest contributors, will provide $150 million and eventually offer 70 percent of financing for the fund.
The ADB will administer the fund and ensure that all investments are financially sound, the bank's president Haruhiko Kuroda said.
Myanmar will not initially participate in the fund but may join in the future, ASEAN officials said. Myanmar, earlier known as Burma, is one of the least developed members of the bloc and its military-backed government has long posed a dilemma for regional integration.
Thailand will not take part immediately as it must go through domestic procedures but it is expected to join, said ASEAN chief Surin, who is Thai.
ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, also includes Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.
The initiative comes as China, which has uneasy political relations with a number of Southeast Asian nations, increasingly looks to exert influence through infrastructure projects -- long a hallmark of Japanese foreign policy.
ASEAN officials said that China, Japan and South Korea had voiced interest in taking part in the initiative but that the region decided to keep it internal for now.
"Our position is that at the initial stage it should be in ASEAN," Malaysia's Second Finance Minister Ahmad Husni Hanadzlah said.
In creating the fund, ASEAN members studied developed nations and understood that "one of the main ingredients for a successful economy is a sufficient, reliable, appropriate and well-maintained infrastructure," said Indonesian Finance Minister Agus Martowardojo, whose country is the current ASEAN chair.
The fund "will help ensure that the 600 million people who call our region home will have greater access to energy, clean water and sanitation and better forms of transportation," he said.