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Asean leaders sign free trade zone plan

Bali, Oct. 7 (Reuters): Southeast Asian leaders today signed a plan to transform the region into a giant free trade zone by 2020, with several urging a faster pace if they are to keep up with the rest of the world.

Leaders of the 10-member Association of South East Nations (Asean) also avoided criticism of fellow member Myanmar and welcomed the junta's recent decision to move democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi into house arrest from detention.

Security was tight for the annual summit on Indonesia's bomb-scarred tropical island of Bali. Troops were deployed and 13 naval vessels sailed offshore to protect leaders of Asean, to be joined by China, Japan and South Korea and India, at their two-day meeting to endorse plans to create a single market.

“If we join forces, Korea and Asean members and by extension, all of east Asia, will become the engine of growth for the world economy, and the 21st century will be the age of east Asia,” South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun told business leaders.

The Asean region has a population of 500 million and annual trade worth $720 billion.

The urgency for the trading bloc has been highlighted by the failure of world trade talks in Cancun. Asean’s relatively small economies want more influence to compete with China and at the same time are working to set up a free trade zone with their giant northern neighbour.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao tackled those worries head-on.

“My answer is that a more developed and stronger China will bring about development opportunities and tangible benefits to other Asian countries,” he told the business leaders.

“China’s development will bring tremendous immediate and long-term benefits to Asian countries.

It provides a huge market for Asian countries,” he said, adding that China would encourage its companies to invest in other Asian countries.

The group is considering advancing the 2020 deadline as it works on free trade agreements to be completed with China in 2010, India in 2011 and Japan in 2012, Asean secretary-general Ong Keng Yong said at the weekend.

“The China-Asean Free Trade Area is a win-win arrangement,” Wen said.

By 2010 the world could see a free trade area with nearly two billion people and total gross domestic product of almost $3.0 trillion taking shape in Asia, Wen said.

Several leaders urged an earlier deadline for creating the Asean Economic Community endorsed as part of the Bali Concord II, warning Asean’s economies risk being left behind. Leaders discussed bringing forward the date and left open the possibility, said a final statement by the chair.

“Seventeen years from now might be too late,” Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said yesterday of the goal to cut tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade in the region.

Singapore Prime Minster Goh Chok Tong, a leading advocate of the free trade bloc, poured cold water on high expectations for quick progress by a group that has frequently adopted such plans and failed to follow through. He urged proper implementation.

Asean has long been viewed as a talking shop that stresses consensus over confrontation among members, ranging from nascent democracies to monarchies and a military dictatorship, which can be reluctant or unable to follow through on agreed initiatives.

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