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Japanese PM Begins Tour of Southeast Asia

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has arrived in the Philippines on the first stop of a five-nation trip to southeast Asia. The prime minister's trip is aimed at boosting economic ties in the face of a global recession.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi arrived in Manila Wednesday - beginning a week long trip aimed at reasserting Japan's economic presence in southeast Asia.

Upon his arrival the prime minister met senior Philippine officials and President Gloria Arroyo. He told reporters he envisions a regional cooperation zone that would include not only southeast Asia and Japan, but also other countries like China, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

The 10 member nations of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, are seeking to form an economic union similar to Europe's. They took an initial step last week of reducing tariffs amongst themselves to five percent.

The Japanese prime minister's trip is also aimed at countering a major push by China in the region. ASEAN members at their summit in Brunei last November agreed to form a free trade area with China in 10 years.

Prime Minister Koizumi attended the summit and pledged that Japan would not be far behind. An East Asia free trade area including these two industrial powers would create a market of nearly two billion people with gross domestic production of nearly $2 trillion.

Mr. Koizumi's ASEAN hosts this week are also likely to seek assurances that Japan will not reduce foreign aid to them, despite a projected 10 percent reduction in its program this year due to budget cuts.

During his visit to Manila, the Japanese prime minister was heckled by small groups protesting Japan's imperialist past.

Prime Minister Koizumi Thursday flies to Malaysia, before traveling on to Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore.