Leaders Give Stamp of Approval to East Asian Free-Trade Area

The leaders of the 10 countries of Asean, Japan, China and South Korea endorsed the eventual establishment of a free-trade area that would include all of East Asia during the Asean Plus Three Summit here Monday, a senior official said.

Earlier in the day, Japan, China and South Korea held its own hour-long meeting in which leaders gave the go-ahead for further study of a free-trade area involving just those three countries, the official said.

The meetings were summarized by a Japanese foreign ministry official who spoke to reporters on condition of anony­mity. He said he was forbidden to refer to specific countries’ statements other than Japan’s.

During the trilateral meeting, the three countries endorsed the second phase of a study proposed by major research institutions in each country. The study will investigate the impacts of a free-trade agreement on the environment, energy and information technology.

While the trilateral free-trade area proposal was of “great importance” to Japan, agreements with Asean and a bilateral agreement with South Korea are further along and will take precedence, the official said.

“Almost all” of the 13 countries in the Asean Plus Three Summit mentioned a recommendation by the East Asia Vision Group, a blue-ribbon panel of intellectuals formed in 2000 that recommended establishing an East Asia free trade area in the “medium to long term,” the official said. Those results were later endorsed by policy makers from the 13 countries in the so-called East Asia Study Group.

“Many leaders expressed the view this free trade initiative for East Asia as a whole should be built steadily and gradually, in what is known as a building block approach,” the official said.

The countries also agreed to increase cooperation to fight terrorism, he said. Japanese Prime Min­ister Junichiro Koizumi an­nounced a program to train 150 people from throughout Asean in managing crises involving biological or chemical weap­ons over the next five years, he said.

The two-hour Asean Plus Three summit consisted entirely of statements by each country with no back-and-forth discussion, the official said. Though the official’s somewhat vague statements were the only ones publicly available, it appeared the summit was typical of the meetings so far in that it was friendly and avoided controversial issues.

While supporting the free trade area, “some [Asean] delegates expressed the view that they would like to maintain their identity and solidarity among Asean members as long as possible…so as not to be absorbed” into the East Asia bloc, the official said.

Poorer countries in Asean requested that the three guest countries provide financial and technical assistance for development, the official said. The countries also asked for “increased market access” to the richer countries, implicitly requesting a lowering of tariffs.


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