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ASEAN Officials Call for Faster Economic Integration

Senior Southeast Asian economic officials meeting in the Philippines are pushing for faster economic integration in the region and more preferential free trade deals with its major Asian trading partners. Officials say the stalled global free trade negotiations underscore the need for regional trading arrangements. VOA's Heda Bayron reports from Cebu, where the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and China, Japan, South Korea and others are gathering this week.

Host Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said Wednesday the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia summits this week would bring a "golden" opportunity for the region to chart a new direction in development.

She called for greater effort toward economic integration among Southeast Asian nations, China, Japan, South Korea, India and other neighbors.

ASEAN aims to create a common market by 2015.

On Wednesday, ASEAN economic officials said free trade agreements with major trading partners are essential in reaching that goal, and are now more urgent as global trade talks under the World Trade Organization (WTO) are stalled.

China and ASEAN have already agreed to establish a free trade area by 2010. Similar agreements with Japan and India are also under negotiation.

Ramon Vicente Kabigting, a senior Philippine trade official, says a lot is at stake in these negotiations.

"We are competing with the rest of the world, and everybody wants to hurry because if we don't hurry up agreements will be signed by Japan with other people in the world, by ASEAN with other people in the world," Kabigting said. "Everybody's pushing the pedal all the way to the ground for a long time now."

Regional trade agreements make it easier for goods and services to flow into linked markets. But some analysts believe they can impede international trade and global trade deals.

WTO talks have been suspended since July over disagreements between the United States and the European Union on agricultural subsidies. ASEAN is expected to issue a statement this week calling on the world's biggest economies to make concessions to break the stalemate.

On Thursday, Southeast Asian foreign ministers and their counterparts from Japan, China, South Korea and India will start meetings on economic and other strategic issues, including security concerns.

The ASEAN and East Asia summits come as Britain, Canada and Australia issue warnings of possible terrorist attacks in the region. On Wednesday, Philippine Police Chief Oscar Calderon said thousands of troops are ready to secure the delegates. The military is on high alert nationwide.

The summits had been suddenly postponed in December as foreign governments warned of terror attacks. The Philippine government blamed an approaching typhoon for the delay.