Government leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have opened a two-day summit in Laos aimed at creating an Asian economic community within six years and expanding free trade agreements with Asia's largest economies.

Laotian Prime Minister Boungnang Vorachit opened the summit Monday, saying new challenges such as terrorism, the rise in oil prices and the rapid spread of diseases, underscore the need for increased cooperation among the association's 10 member states. The prime minister said ASEAN's relations with other Asian nations are also due to expand.

Laotian government spokesman Yong Chantalangsy explained that the ASEAN leaders have agreed to coordinate their annual summits with China, Japan and South Korea. "The leaders agreed to hold an East Asia summit, back to back, with the 11th ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur in 2005, next year," he said.

Some Asian leaders see such a summit as a possible first step towards creating an East Asia economic union that would link nearly one-third of global economic production.

ASEAN leaders also agreed to hold a first-ever summit with Russia next year. Russia's foreign minister is to sign a treaty of friendship with ASEAN at this week's summit.

ASEAN also signed an accord with China to create the world's largest free-trade area. Negotiations on other free-trade areas are already underway with South Korea, Japan and India, and are due to be held with Australia and New Zealand.

ASEAN spokesman Jun Abad noted that within ASEAN, tariffs on most goods have already been reduced to less than five percent. He says the six wealthiest members - Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines - agreed Monday to eliminate tariffs altogether in 11 priority sectors.

The 11 sectors, including automobiles, forestry products, textiles and manufactured goods, make up more than one-half of all trade within the group.

"Under this agreement today, the ASEAN-six countries will accelerate the elimination of tariff to 2007 of these 11 priority sectors," said Mr. Abad.

The other four ASEAN members, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, will do the same by 2012. The leaders agreed to create a development fund in order to help these less-developed economies make the transition to a free market.

ASEAN leaders agreed to increase cooperation in security and cultural areas with a view toward turning the group into a regional community by 2010.

Regional businessmen, following a meeting on the margins of the summit, told the leaders that free trade agreements are important, but that more attention should be devoted to improving roads and transportation, and standardizing customs and investment regulations.