• Kyodo

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At a time when maritime tensions involving China are under the spotlight, Asia-Pacific trade ministers agreed Sunday to promote regional economic integration and draft a road map, possibly by the end of the year, for creating a new free trade area.

“We are committed to further advancing the Asia-Pacific’s role as an engine of the global economy through increased cooperation and mutual support,” the ministers said in a statement released after a two-day meeting in China’s eastern port city of Qingdao.

The meeting effectively marked the start of China’s chairmanship this year of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and came at a time when the region, which accounts for nearly 60 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, is fraught with maritime tensions, most recently between Beijing and Hanoi in the South China Sea.

The ministers said they are “determined to uphold the principles of openness, inclusiveness and cooperation under a win-win spirit . . . (and) deepen and strengthen regional economic integration.”

To this end, one of the key agreements reached this time was to formulate a road map to help establish the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, which embraces all APEC economies.

The ministers, instructing their officials to finalize the road map by the end of 2014, said the 21-member grouping will strengthen studies on the envisaged area and information-sharing on a range of free trade deals in the region.

A dozen countries belonging to APEC, including Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam, are struggling to seal a separate free trade accord known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership by the end of the year.

On Monday, ministers from the 12 countries negotiating the TPP will attend a two-day meeting in Singapore to narrow differences over tariffs and other thorny issues.

China, which is not part of the TPP, is highly concerned about the possibility of being left out of any bids to establish new trade rules in the region.

In this light, China has become one of the strongest proponents of the wider APEC zone and tried to include a target year for its establishment in the Qingdao statement, according to senior officials involved in the meeting.

But the Chinese proposal did not materialize because a majority of the APEC countries, including Japan and the U.S., argued that it is too early to come up with a specific year for the zone, dubbed FTAAP, while talks on the TPP and other trade initiatives are underway, the officials said.

The meeting of the 21-member grouping is the first in a series of ministerial sessions to prepare for the forum’s summit in November in Beijing.

It took place amid high tensions between China and Vietnam over Beijing’s deployment of a large oil rig in an area also claimed by Hanoi. Both sides accuse the other of ramming each other’s ships.

But the APEC ministers did not take up the tense maritime standoff, which led to deadly anti-China protests in Vietnam.

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