The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) will set up a group including China, Japan and South Korea to study the feasibility of forming an East Asia Free Trade Area, said a draft document obtained by the media on Thursday.
Ten-nation Asean is already engaged in free trade talks with China and Japan on a bilateral basis and negotiations with South Korea are expected to begin next year.
An East Asia-wide free trade area would broaden these bilateral pacts by putting the 13 countries in a zone where they will all be able to conduct trade freely with each other.
The 13 countries have a combined population of nearly two billion people, one-third of the global population.
Shelving historic animosities
Such a free trade area would also mean China and South Korea would have to set aside their historic animosities, diplomats said.
Regional and bilateral free trade agreements have mushroomed, partly due to an impasse in global trade liberalisation talks under the World Trade Organisation (WTO), analysts say.
Apec leaders fear free trade will
divert attention from WTO talks
However, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meeting in Chile least week, Asia-Pacific leaders failed to endorse a call by big business to study creating an ambitious free trade area for the region.
The Apec leaders fear that an Asia-Pacific free trade area would divert attention from the WTO talks, which have become bogged down due to disagreements over issues such as farm subsidies.
East Asia summit
Asean comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The leaders of the group, China, Japan and South Korea will also discuss at their 29-30 November meeting in Laos proposals to hold an East Asia summit in Malaysia next year in a move to formalise their regional bloc, known by the informal name Asean Plus Three.
The East Asia summit would be similar to an East Asia Economic Caucus proposed by then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in the early 1990s.
It failed to take off because of opposition from the United States which feared it would undermine Apec.
Asian UN candidate
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan
will step down in 2006
Also next week, the bloc is expected to endorse Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai for the post of UN secretary-general, according to the draft.
Surakiart would be the first Asian head of the world body for more than 30 years.
The last Asian to head the United Nations was U Thant, from former Burma (now Myanmar), who was secretary-general from 1961 to 1971.
Current Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has headed the United Nations since 1996, has said he would not seek a third five-year term after 2006.