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Asian Leaders Look to Expand Economic Ties - 2004-07-30

A meeting of seven Asian nations got under way in Bangkok Friday with the aim of speeding up economic cooperation and pressing ahead with plans for a free trade agreement. Regional leaders are also to focus on working together more closely to counter terrorism.

Leaders from seven South and Southeast Asian countries are meeting in Bangkok, hoping to add momentum to the slow progress on economic cooperation in recent years.

Expanding trade and investment, as well as cooperation in science and technology, energy, fisheries, communications, transport and tourism are all on the agenda.

So far, the group's combined trade totals just $7.3 billion. That's just four percent of their total trade.

Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow said a key goal of the summit in Bangkok will be to speed up economic cooperation.

"We believe this meeting is important, because momentum is increasing, but we need the political will from the leaders to move things forward," Mr. Sihasak said.

The group's foreign ministers signed on earlier this year to plans for a free trade zone. Talks will now focus on having the pact fully in place by 2017.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is attending the summit, making his first official foreign visit since he took office in May. Burma's prime minister, Khin Nyunt, is also taking part in the meeting, and Thailand is expected to press him for the release from house arrest of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow said regional concerns over terrorism were also high on the agenda.

"We're also talking about new directions in combating terrorism, because that has a tremendous impact on the economic stability of the region," Mr. Sihasak said.

The regional forum consists of Bangladesh, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The group was founded in 1997, but, so far, progress to expand trade and open up markets has been slow. Leaders are now hoping to speed up the process.