Senior trade officials from South-east Asian countries and China yesterday launched the first round of talks on setting up a free trade area, which could cover a third of the world's population.
"To formally launch the negotiation process of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area ... is a historic step in the cooperation between China and ASEAN," Chinese Vice Trade Minister Long Yongtu said.
Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China last November agreed to establish a FTA within the next 10 years, a move that could result in an integrated market of some 1.7 billion people.
Long said the trade zone would be the largest of its kind among developing nations and would boast a GDP of US$2 trillion and a total of some US$1.2 trillion in annual trade volume.
"The decision of China and ASEAN to establish the FTA is also an active attempt of strengthening cooperation among developing nations," Long said.
However, he anticipated rocky negotiations, but pledged China's interest in establishing the zone lay in the "necessity and urgency" of strengthening economic links following the Asian financial crisis and a slowdown in the global economy.
"In our road toward the free trade area, we will inevitably face the challenges of adjusting industrial structure, optimizing division of labor and cooperation, enhancing coordination, accommodating different development stages and clearing up skepticism and worries," Long said.
The establishment of the zone, reflected the political will of the region's leaders, he said.
Negotiations during the three-day meeting were being held at the expert level and formed part of the third China-ASEAN senior economic official's meeting.
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