China's president urges free trade agreements, open markets to boost Asia-Africa trade

China's president on Thursday urged Asian and African leaders to pursue free trade agreements and open their markets to each other to overcome economic woes plaguing countries on the two continents.

Speaking at a business forum on the eve of a summit of Asia-African leaders, Hu Jintao did not mention his country's current diplomatic spat with Japan during his 20-minute speech. The row - over a territorial dispute and Japan's campaign to gain a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council - has triggered weeks of massive protests in Beijing and threatened to overshadow the two-day summit.

Sticking instead to economics, Hu urged leaders from the two regions to step up cooperation and seize opportunities to help meet the challenges facing their countries.

"New trade barriers, recurring economic and financial crises and the widening north-south gaps have placed some Asian and African countries in difficult straits of being marginalized," Hu said. "We Asian and African countries must seize opportunities, strengthen cooperation to cope with (the) challenges and seek common development."

The summit opens Friday in the Indonesian capital, drawing together presidents, prime ministers and kings representing 80 nations.

Speaking to about 500 business leaders, Hu said Asia and Africa should strengthen economic cooperation by pushing for free trade agreements and by coordinating their economic and trade policies.

On China, Hu said the country had made a "historic leap" in economic reforms but admitted there were still many problems and challenges because of its 1.3 billion population - the world's largest - and a weak economic foundation.

Hu did not dwell on the weaknesses in the communist country's economic system.

China's economy grew by an unexpectedly high 9.5 percent in the first three months of this year, despite the government's concerns that surging growth could ignite inflation.

Hu also said China would continue to play a responsible role in boosting global growth and peace.

"China cannot develop in isolation and the world needs China to achieve global prosperity," Hu said.

AUDRA ANG, Associated Press Writer

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