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China, 10 Asian Countries to Form  Free-Trade Area - 2001-11-06

China and 10 Southeast Asian countries have agreed to form a free-trade area within 10 years. The announcement came on the final day of a summit in Brunei of the leaders of Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the heads of China, Japan and South Korea. The agreement would create the world's largest free-trade area.

Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji told reporters after meeting the 10 ASEAN heads of state that the free trade area could be operating in five to 10 years. He said the leaders had instructed their ministers to work out details of the agreement as soon as possible.

The chairman of the summit, Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, called it an agreement of enormous historical significance. He said ASEAN can not simply wait for its traditional export markets to recover from the current economic downturn.

When implemented, the accord would create the world's largest free-trade area, with nearly two billion people and a combined gross domestic product of nearly two trillion dollars per year.

Chinese officials say the free-trade agreement would bring a 50-percent increase in exports to both sides and would raise annual economic growth in ASEAN by one percent.

ASEAN leaders also met with the leaders of Japan and South Korea and discussed a Korean proposal that the 13 nations form a trade group.

Officials said India, another emerging economic powerhouse in the region, would be invited to the summit next year.

ASEAN's export-driven economies have been hard hit by the global economic downturn. Their leaders hope lowering trade barriers with the region's largest economies will provide new markets for ASEAN-made goods.

In a separate meeting Tuesday, the leaders of China, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia discussed the illegal drug trade along their borders. They noted intelligence sharing has improved recently and seizures of illegal drugs have increased. They will hold a summit soon on drug trafficking in the region.

The ASEAN leaders opened the summit Monday by adopting a declaration condemning the September 11th attacks in the United States, but reject linking terrorism to any religion or race. The declaration did not mention the U.S. led military operations in Afghanistan because of differences among the members over the strikes.

ASEAN leaders also agreed to upgrade their response to the region's growing AIDS epidemic through better cooperation on prevention and treatment. They called for the creation of a global health fund to provide AIDS victims in poor countries access to expensive medicines.