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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Japan Signs On for Trade Talks

VIENTIANE, Laos -- Japan and South Korea joined the rush to court Southeast Asia, agreeing Tuesday to launch free trade talks with the region's leaders hours after they clinched a momentous market-opening deal with booming China.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun separately adopted accords with the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreeing to launch the talks early next year. Both agreements aim for trade pacts within two years.

Australia and New Zealand were expected to sign similar agreements with ASEAN before the close later Tuesday of the group's annual summit in the sleepy, palm-fringed capital of impoverished Laos.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard's refusal to heed ASEAN's calls to join its nonaggression treaty has been an irritant in Southeast Asia, though he sought to play down any concerns.

"We have no hostile intentions towards anybody in the region," Howard said ahead of his meetings with regional leaders.

Some leaders are wary of Australia because of Howard's comments in 2002 that he reserves the right to launch pre-emptive attacks in neighboring countries if terrorists there threaten his country or its citizens.

Communist Laos -- holding its first-ever conference of this magnitude -- on Tuesday eased its tight security in Vientiane, where dusty roads have been dotted with green-clad policemen. At the main venue, officers stopped scrutinizing cars for bombs and passengers for their credentials.

"As you may notice from this morning, we feel even more comfortable and less burdened with the security check," government spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy said, adding that Laos wanted to project an image that "does not look like a martial town, a besieged town."

ASEAN and China on Monday signed an accord aimed at phasing in the world's largest free trade area by decade's end -- a sprawling market of nearly 2 billion people.

ASEAN's secretary-general, Ong Keng Yong, said it would expand trade between the regions from about $100 billion this year to as much as $140 billion by 2010.

The agreement not only opens markets, but eases fears that China would be a "strategic bully" in the region, said Denny Roy, a senior research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.

"China has also tried to sell Southeast Asia on the idea that China's economic development is more of an opportunity than a threat to the region," Roy said.

"The prevailing view seems to be that China is so far living up to its claim that it will not be a strategic bully as it grows more powerful."

The accord aims to bring tariffs below 5 percent in most of the 11 signatories by 2010 -- giving an extra two years for prized products such as cars, and granting an extra five years for poorest ASEAN members Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam to come online.

ASEAN also planned to sign a blueprint for economic cooperation with India. The accords with China and India reflect desires by Southeast Asia to latch onto economies that are siphoning foreign investment from the region.

ASEAN members Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam joined host Laos for the summit.