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Thu, Aug 24, 2006 - Page 10 News List

ASEAN ministers cautious on Japan's regional trade plan

PROPOSAL Japan wants to move forward on a pan-Asian free-trade deal, but ASEAN ministers want Tokyo to complete negotiations with it first

AP , KUALA LUMPUR

Japan yesterday proposed plans to create an ambitious 16-nation free trade area covering half the world's population.

Southeast Asian ministers gave the idea cautious support, but urged Tokyo to focus first on completing its free-trade negotiations with ASEAN.

Japan's Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Toshihiro Nikai told a news conference that he called for experts to begin a study next year on a pan-Asian free trade area that would include Australia, China, South Korea, India, Japan, New Zealand and the 10-member ASEAN.

The proposed zone has a combined population of 3.1 billion people and GDP of almost US$10 trillion.

"ASEAN countries expressed their interest and support ... it will be discussed in details between now and the end of the year," he said after talks with ASEAN trade ministers.

Malaysian Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz said Japan's proposal "is all right" but it must seek first to speedily conclude free-trade talks with ASEAN as the basis of such expanded regional economic collaboration.

Before yesterday's meeting, one ASEAN official said that the bloc wants Japan to invest in its forestry sector -- important to Malaysia and Indonesia -- and fisheries sector -- sensitive to Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia.

"But Japan's position is that it just wants trade," he said on condition of anonymity.

The official said that Japanese expertise in the areas would help invigorate industry and provide employment for the region's vast population.

"For example, ASEAN wants to learn the business on how to can the fish. And in forestry, we do not want Japan to just buy the logs but to share its experience on producing the finished products," he said.

ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong said the grouping wants Japan to offer a region-wide FTA, rather than "stringing together" existing pacts forged with individual ASEAN nations.

Japan has signed bilateral FTAs with Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, and Ong said that Tokyo wanted to bundle those along with a possible deal with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

"ASEAN's stand is basically that when we do our ASEAN-Japan FTA, it should be a regional FTA, one piece of document with Japan," Ong told reporters late on Tuesday.

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