ASEAN Ministers Near Trade Deal with Japan, Advance Regional Free-Trade Plan

Economic ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Japan have put the final touches on a free-trade deal, one of the largest in Asia. The ASEAN officials also have agreed on a blueprint that would create a seamless regional economy by 2015. Chad Bouchard reports from Jakarta.

Under the deal reached Saturday, Japan will lift import tariffs on 90 percent of goods from the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. That percentage will rise over the next decade to 93 percent.

In return, ASEAN's wealthier six nations will cut tariffs on 90 percent of Japanese goods. The four smaller, impoverished members - Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam - will make cuts later and more slowly.

Trade ministers gathered in Manila for a three-day meeting say the deal will sharply increase trade between ASEAN and Japan, which already tops 160 billion dollars.

While ASEAN is making progress on trade deals with Japan, China and other countries, it is also making progress in expanding internal trade. On Friday, the ASEAN ministers approved a blueprint for creating a free-trade zone by 2015.

The ASEAN Economic Community, or AEC, hopes to form an integrated group like the European Union, which can stand up to trade giants such as China and India.

University of Adelaide Economics Professor Christopher Findlay says the blueprint may not be enough to lure investors to the region. He says key components such as infrastructure and product standards will have to be addressed more rigorously.

"Yeah, so it's okay to make commitments about border change, and it's really important to do that, and the gains from getting that right are huge. But there's strategy in actually implementing it. I think what we're discovering is that you need to be thinking about what's happening behind the border as well," said Findlay.

Discussion over trade in the agriculture sector has been sidelined due to a stalemate over farm subsidies and trade barriers.

Findlay says that since farm products dominate the export market in Southeast Asia, the AEC trade agreement is weakened by their exclusion.

ASEAN is made up of 10 countries - Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam - with a combined gross domestic product of one-point-one trillion dollars.

The group has been hammering out trade deals with six countries, including Japan and China, which are to be finalized this year.

The guidelines for the ASEAN Economic Community are expected to be signed during the group's summit in Singapore this November.