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Trade minister Toshihiro Nikai’s announcement earlier this month that Japan plans to start talks with 15 other nations in 2008 to create an Asia-Oceania free-trade zone took many by surprise — not only experts but also those within government — sparking speculation about the ministry’s true intentions.

On April 4, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry proposed a new economic framework to strengthen trade relations beyond current bilateral free-trade agreements, saying it involves not only tariff reductions but also investment, services and rules on intellectual property — a comprehensive economic partnership agreement.

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