Sino-ASEAN FTA set for an upgrade

Updated: 2013-10-25 23:41

By Li Jiabao (China Daily)

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Both sides agree to open talks to boost commerce

China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations soon will open talks on upgrading the China-ASEAN free trade agreement.

Both sides are pledging to enhance trade facilitation and investment cooperation, senior commerce officials said on Friday.

"China, together with ASEAN, will soon launch negotiations to upgrade the bilateral FTA to pragmatically enhance liberalization and the facilitation of trade and investment," China's Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng told reporters after an ASEAN economic ministers' roadshow in China.

Gao said that the talks are aimed at making the pact "a more comprehensive agreement with higher quality".

Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, deputy prime minister and minister of commerce of Thailand, added that "officials will begin to discuss further details during the China-ASEAN Joint Committee, to be held in Bangkok in early November".

The ASEAN delegation to the roadshow, which included more than 120 officials from the member countries and the secretariat, is visiting China this week, with stops in Chengdu, Shanghai and Beijing. The officials are promoting trade and investment opportunities to Chinese provincial executives and local businesses.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the China-ASEAN strategic partnership.

China has strengthened its ties with Southeast Asia, with President Xi Jinping paying state visits to Indonesia and Malaysia and attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit from Oct 2 to 8.

Meanwhile, Premier Li Keqiang paid official visits to Brunei, Thailand and Vietnam and attended the East Asia leaders' meetings from Oct 9 to 15.

Li's proposal to upgrade the China-ASEAN FTA, which he raised during the meeting earlier this month, was "universally welcomed" by ASEAN members, according to Gao.

Both sides agreed to a goal of bilateral trade reaching $500 billion by 2015, $1 trillion by 2020 and two-way investment of $150 billion within the next eight years.

China is the largest trade partner of ASEAN, while the bloc is China's third-largest trade partner.

Bilateral trade hit $400.1 billion last year. In the first nine months of this year, two-way trade rose 11.6 percent to $322.36 billion.

China is the fourth-largest investor in ASEAN, which in turn is China's third-largest source of foreign direct investment.

Mutual cumulative investment stood at about $110 billion as of the end of August, according to Gao.

"I believe that the ASEAN-China relationship will continue to grow, and the goals set by the leaders are achievable.," he said.

"Next year will be another important milestone for our trade and investment relationship, since China and ASEAN have decided to upgrade the FTA by, among other things, improving market conditions and the bilateral trade balance, as well as expanding the scope and coverage of the Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation between ASEAN and China," Boonsongpaisan said.

Gao urged both sides to speed up infrastructure interconnectivity in the region and expand financing channels through establishing an Asian infrastructure investment bank, which was proposed by China's president and premier.

Gao also called for stronger cooperation in regional economic integration.

"China fully supports the leadership role of the ASEAN in advancing East Asian cooperation and steadily pushing forward subregional cooperation, as well as engaging in the conclusion of talks on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in 2015," Gao said.

Shen Minghui, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, added that "China may not be the leader in advancing the progress of the RCEP, but it should play a more active role, especially in setting the issues, and present a more open stance so as to speed up the talks".