Japan Wednesday proposed plans to create an ambitious 16-nation free trade area covering more than half the world's population in a market worth nearly US$10 trillion.
Southeast Asian ministers gave the idea cautious support, but urged Tokyo to focus first on completing its free trade negotiations with ASEAN.
Toshihiro Nikai, Japan's economy, trade and industry minister, said Tokyo 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 Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The proposed zone has a combined population of 3.1 billion people and gross domestic product of almost US$10 trillion.
"ASEAN countries expressed their interest and support... it will be discussed in detail between now and the end of the year," Nikai said after talks with ASEAN trade ministers.
Japan has also proposed the setting up of a research centre with funding of 10 billion yen (US$86 million) over a decade to explore the possibilities of future economic collaboration between Japan, its ASEAN partners and other nations.
Malaysian Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz said Japan's proposal "is all right" but it must seek first move to speedily conclude free trade talks with ASEAN before such an expanded regional economic collaboration can be discussed.
Rafidah said ASEAN's 10 members are open to Japan's call for a study, but that it should not derail its own talks.
The deadline for concluding a Japan-ASEAN collaboration is mid-2007, she said.
(China Daily August 24, 2006)