• Kyodo

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A senior Japanese trade official said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should speed up efforts to integrate the regional economy in a bid to call back Japanese investment.

“It is important for ASEAN, and also desirable to Japan, that ASEAN further accelerates integration,” Hidehiro Konno, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s vice minister for international affairs, said in an interview Wednesday with Kyodo News.

Konno was passing through Bangkok on his way to attend a Friday meeting of economic ministers from ASEAN plus China, Japan and South Korea in Cambodia on behalf of Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Takeo Hiranuma. The meeting follows an informal gathering Thursday of ASEAN’s economic ministers.

Hiranuma will skip the meeting in Siem Reap for political reasons, ministry officials said, referring to the onset of the new government under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and the ongoing session of the Diet.

“ASEAN’s move for integration has slowed from the original pace,” Konno said. “Considering the future, China’s attraction as an investment destination is growing,” he added, citing the fall in Japan’s overseas investment in general due to weak economies at home and abroad.

Japan has helped ASEAN’s bid for regional integration under the ASEAN Free Trade Area through dialogue since 1992 between the trade minister and the grouping. ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

The so-called ASEAN-plus-three framework has meanwhile evolved since 1997, owing mainly to the Asian financial crisis. The 13 leaders meet annually, and the finance, economy and foreign ministers in the group have been getting together regularly since last year.

Konno described the gathering, the third of its kind, as getting down to business with six specific cooperative projects set for launch Friday.

The East Asian framework has more things to do, however, before seriously considering a regional economic integration similar to that in Europe and a Free Trade Area of the Americas lately agreed to by 34 American states, he said.

“The most important and imminent issue for Asia is to create a framework under which countries form trade and economic relations in line with international common rules, with China and all others entering the World Trade Organization,” Konno said.

Of the 13 countries, China’s entry into the world trade body has been delayed, and Cambodia is bidding for its own access. Laos and Vietnam are also nonmembers.

“Concluding an FTA regionwide is still at the stage of an academic study,” the vice minister added, alluding to a working group launched in November in an ASEAN-plus-three summit in Singapore to study the creation of an East Asian free-trade zone.

On Japan’s first import restrictions under the WTO’s ordinary “safeguard” mechanism invoked last month, Konno said the reason behind it is also the weakening domestic economy.

“The government has to manage the inevitable strengthening of cries (for protection) by embattled industries from two standpoints — not to break WTO rules and to take care of communications and transparent relations in the region.”

On April 23, Japan provisionally slapped the emergency import curbs on three agricultural products — stone leeks, shiitake and rushes used in tatami mats — the bulk of which come from China. Moves seeking similar actions are also on the rise because of surging imports of other primary and textile products.

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