The growing economic giant China inked a number of trade deals with ASEAN in November, paving the way for the establishment of a free trade agreement (FTA) between Beijing and the association.
The move was heralded as a key economic development for the region, and the two parties hope to finish negotiation over the FTA by 2010, creating the world's third largest market, after NAFTA and the EU.
The free trade area, if successfully established, will include more than 2 billion people and have a GDP of more than than US$2 trillion.
According to Chinese officials, China is a huge market for ASEAN countries and the nation has trade deficits with many of them.
China's imports from ASEAN countries surged by 50 percent to US$47 billion in 2003, compared to exports of US$31 billion, increasing by 30 percent, according to official Chinese statistics.
Imports continued to increase by 42.5 percent to US$13.8 billion and exports totaled US$8.1 billion, up 31.9 percent from the first quarter of last year.
One of the biggest obstacles to creating the giant free trade area has been concern about agricultural tariffs, but a series of marathon negotiations managed to smooth out most of the member states' concerns.
Meanwhile, the proposed China-ASEAN FTA is being viewed as a significant challenge for many of the region's economies, particularly Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Although all three of these nations are members of the WTO, the increased pace of trade liberalization caused by a bilateral trade agreement between China and ASEAN could leave other countries out in the cold.