FTAs with ASEAN nations urged

Japan should sign bilateral accords on economic cooperation with as many countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as possible by the end of 2006, a government panel said Wednesday.

In a report submitted to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, the panel called on the government to beef up its relationships with ASEAN members on bilateral bases.

Japanese and ASEAN economic ministers agreed last month to launch negotiations next year to bolster economic ties through such efforts as creating a regional free-trade agreement “as soon as possible within 10 years.”

But the panel said a practical way to achieve a regional partnership would be to build up bilateral cooperation accords with leading trade partners in the region.

The panel, formed to realize a comprehensive economic alliance between Japan and the ASEAN members, also stressed that certain items, including agricultural products, should not be excluded from such accords. Japan should also strive to close the economic gaps between ASEAN members, it added.

The agricultural sector is a potential stumbling block for the envisioned economic partnership as Japan has insisted on keeping specific markets effectively closed.

ASEAN countries have said an economic partnership without agricultural liberalization would not make sense for the grouping. But in Japan, ruling party politicians representing agricultural areas, particularly rice, are opposed to farm liberalization.

The points in the panel’s report should be included in a declaration at the ASEAN Plus Three meeting, featuring the 10 ASEAN members plus Japan, China and South Korea, scheduled to take place in Phnom Penh on Nov. 4 and 5.

The members of the panel,which was set up in April, include Takashi Shiraishi, a professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University.

“We want the leaders to have a sense of speed. Unless we set a deadline, the talks may never end,” Shiraishi told a news conference.

Japan also faces competition from China, which agreed with ASEAN last year to form a free-trade area within 10 years by offering to first open up its agricultural market.

Asked if the proposals in the report are intended at pitting Japan against China, Shiraishi said, “I don’t take it that way.

“An economic partnership between China and ASEAN is welcome as a building block for an economic integration in the whole of East Asia. One (by Japan) with South Korea will also serve as a building block.”

In the report, the panel calls for extending the Japan-ASEAN partnership to East Asia, also covering China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, in the long term.

Japan concluded its first-ever FTA with Singapore, an ASEAN member, early this year and is considering one with South Korea. It has also begun FTA talks with Thailand and the Philippines.