ASEAN summit: continue trade talks in workshops

Japan's trade minister acknowledged Friday that free trade negotiations with Southeast Asian nations had failed but proposed new talks in a more casual setting. Toshihiro Nikai, Japan's minister of economy, trade and industry, said he proposed to his counterparts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to start informal "workshops" in an effort to skirt the deadlock in negotiations.

"We have to produce results," said Nikai, adding that the two rounds of free trade talks that began in April were faltering. "We would like ASEAN nations to see Japan as a trustworthy nation." ASEAN accepted his proposal and both sides agreed on a target deadline of March 2007, Nikai told reporters at a Kuala Lumpur hotel.

Japan has been nervous about falling behind China and South Korea on free trade agreements with ASEAN.

South Korea signed a deal Friday on free trade in goods ahead of the annual ASEAN summit, although the pact leaves out Thailand because South Korea refused to open its market to Thai rice. China signed a trade accord with Southeast Asia last year.

Japan and ASEAN are at odds on tariff reductions, and some ASEAN members had complained that Japan was pushing separate deals with member nations that confused the overall talks, Japanese officials said.

The planned informal talks, which could start as early as January next year, will offer an opportunity to talk more freely and include participants from Japanese companies investing in Southeast Asia, they said.

Japan has free trade agreements with only Singapore and Mexico so far, although it's set to sign a pact with Malaysia, an ASEAN member, next week during the ASEAN and East Asia Summit meetings here. Japan is also in talks with the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia and Canada, reports the AP. I.L.

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