JAKARTA (Kyodo) Japan has proposed to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to launch negotiations for a free-trade agreement with the 10-member grouping in April, senior ASEAN officials said Wednesday.

Japanese trade officials floated the target date at a meeting with ASEAN officials to prepare for a gathering of their ministers Saturday on the sidelines of an annual meeting of ASEAN economic ministers.

The proposed date is slightly behind schedule because leaders from Japan and the 10 ASEAN member countries agreed at their summit in Bali in October to try their best to begin negotiations at the start of next year, with a view to achieving a free-trade pact by 2012 with ASEAN’s six more economically advanced economies.

Prenegotiation talks between the two sides have proceeded at a snail’s pace. ASEAN officials have blamed it on Japan’s preoccupation with its current negotiations with several ASEAN countries, namely Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, for bilateral free-trade pacts. Japan has already concluded a free-trade deal with Singapore.

They have also complained that the talks have not made much headway due to Japan’s insistence to settle conditionalities such as the “rules of origin” on products to be liberalized.

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