Japan, which is hosting a two-day summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has pledged to begin talks on setting free-trade agreements with Thailand, Malaysia, and The Philippines.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met with the leaders of Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines and promised all three that he would open talks on free trade deals in early 2004.
Japan, which fiercely protects its agricultural sector, has signed only one free-trade agreement, and that is with Singapore, which has no farm exports.
The meetings between Mr. Koizumi and his Southeast Asia counterparts took place on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit meeting. The summit is underway in Tokyo and marks the first time ASEAN leaders have gathered outside Southeast Asia.
Prime Minister Koizumi, who is eager to promote Japan's ties with the 10 ASEAN-member states, proposed the idea. ASEAN members are Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, The Philippines, Singapore, Burma, Malaysia and Thailand. Mr. Koizumi is hoping better trade relations with the group will help revitalize the slumping Japanese economy.
Mr. Koizumi's pledge also reflects Japan's concerns about China and that country's growing political and economic influence in the region. China and ASEAN member states are trying to finalize their own trade pact by 2010, and Beijing has promised to make progress on the thorny issue of trade in farm goods in just two years.
By contrast, Japan has not committed to a timetable for that sector.
But Japan is ASEAN's number-two trading partner and investor, second only to the United States. ASEAN's annual trade with Japan was worth an estimated $123 billion last year.
While trade and investment top the agenda at the summit meeting, Japanese government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda says security is also being discussed.
He says that Japan and the other nations are discussing how to cooperate to prevent terror attacks.
Mr. Fukuda also told reporters that Prime Minister Koizumi spoke with his counterparts about dispatching Japanese troops to Iraq. Tokyo announced earlier this week that it will offer non-combat support to the U.S.-led reconstruction of that war-torn nation, despite strong opposition from the Japanese public and concerns from other Asian nations about what they view as rising Japanese militarism.
Government spokesman Fukuda says that Mr. Koizumi stressed that Japan wants to help with rebuilding Iraq and does not want to wage war. He said that other countries have praised Japan for making efforts to rebuild Iraq.
On Friday, Mr. Koizumi is scheduled to meet with General Khin Nyunt, the prime minister of military-ruled Burma. He wants Japan to unfreeze an aid boycott over the detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but Tokyo has expressed serious concern about her treatment.