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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Southeast Asia Leaders Talk Free Trade

BALI, Indonesia -- Southeast Asian ministers put the finishing touches Monday to an action plan to transform the region into a giant free trade zone that will be the centerpiece of this week's annual summit of leaders.

Security was tight on Indonesia's bomb-scarred tropical island of Bali, with troops drafted in to ensure no attacks disrupt leaders of the Association of South East Asian Nations, together with China, Japan and South Korea, when they meet Tuesday and Wednesday to agree on integrating trade.

With their focus on nurturing the economic growth of a region rocked in the last few years by a financial crisis, terror attacks and the SARS virus, the leaders looked set to avoid direct criticism of fellow member Myanmar after the junta moved democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from detention into house arrest.

Greater progress looked likely with the group's stamp of approval for an action plan for an ASEAN Economic Community, which is the brainchild of wealthier members such as Singapore and has a goal of a huge free trade zone by 2020.

ASEAN Secretary General Ong Keng Yong said Sunday the target date for a free trade area could be brought forward, and discussion among the leaders would consider accelerating the removal of tariff and nontariff barriers to trade in a region with 500 million people and annual trade worth $720 billion.

With free trade agreements in the works with China, Japan and India that call for completion by 2017, ASEAN should consider advancing the 2020 deadline by three years, Ong said.

A report ASEAN commissioned from business consultants McKinsey has highlighted lack of integration, nontariff barriers and disparate policies that favor competitiveness of single nations at the expense of the group as among problems the bloc must face.