Mon, Nov 05, 2001 - Page 17 News List

Slowing economies press ASEAN to mull free trade initiative


The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque towers over the Brunei water village in the center of Bandar Seri Begawan. Leaders from Southeast Asia, China, Japan and South Korea began arriving for an annual ASEAN summit in Brunei yesterday.


China is booming while Southeast Asia struggles, and ASEAN wants a piece of the action.

China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could have a free trade zone established within 10 years, the secretary general of ASEAN, Rodolfo Severino, said yesterday.

Leaders at an ASEAN summit in Brunei will also discuss free trade possibilities with South Korea and Japan during annual talks today and tomorrow between their 10-nation regional grouping and the three Northeast Asian economic powers, Severino told The Associated Press.

ASEAN leaders have already recommended a 10-year time frame for a deal with China, Severino said, adding that they may announce a time period for the other countries this week.

"We think we can gain something with the three, something economically," Severino said. "It's a challenge to bring down trade barriers for 13 countries."

Rafidah Aziz, Malaysia's trade minister, told reporters that ASEAN ministers were recommending that a study be conducted into a free trade agreement with China. It would have to look at the entire spectrum of ASEAN-China economic relationships and at what stages a free trade agreement would be implemented.

Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji will meet tomorrow with heads of state from the 10 ASEAN leaders.

Since the 1997 Asian economic crisis, once-booming Southeast Asia has been unable to compete for foreign investment with China's rapidly growing economy. Many ASEAN countries are in or near recession due to the current US economic slowdown.

Some ASEAN leaders fear that China will become even more competitive when it enters the WTO and trade barriers are removed.

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