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ASEAN Conference Gives Rise to Future Asian Free Trade Zone - 2002-11-04

China and 10 nations of Southeast Asia have signed an agreement aimed at establishing the world's largest free trade area by the end of the decade. The document was signed on the first day of the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

China's deputy foreign minister said his government proposed the free trade agreement in response to the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s and to face the challenges of economic globalization.

Wang Yi said the two sides have reached a framework agreement on comprehensive economic cooperation, and this lays the legal foundation for a free trade agreement.

Under the agreement, a free trade zone will be established in eight years between China and the older members of ASEAN: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines. The zone is to be extended five years later to the newer, poorer members: Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Under the framework, negotiators are to reach agreement in less than two years on lifting tariffs on goods. Talks to end barriers on services and investment are to be completed later.

Mr. Wang said the framework agreement officially launches the negotiations.

ASEAN leaders earlier completed their summit with a pledge to accelerate their own economic integration. They also condemned the recent terrorist attacks in Bali, Indonesia and the Philippines, but urged foreign governments to refrain from issuing region-wide travel warnings that are threatening tourism and foreign investment in areas that have not received terrorist threats.

The ASEAN leaders called for a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons, adding their voices to those pressing North Korea to halt any program it may have to build nuclear weapons.

The Chinese deputy foreign minister noted that China, Japan, and South Korea held a separate summit to discuss the North Korean weapons issue.

Mr. Wang said the three leaders found a lot of common understanding, and the three also support a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Wang also hails the code of conduct on the South China Sea that was also signed. By approving the code, China and ASEAN nations pledge to refrain from hostile actions at sea. Several countries in the region, including China, dispute the ownership of the Spratly islands in the sea.

ASEAN leaders hold separate meetings Tuesday with leaders from Japan, South Korea, India and South Africa.