KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) - Japan on Wednesday proposed plans to create an ambitious 16-nation free-trade area covering half the world's population.
Southeast Asian ministers gave the idea cautious support, but urged Tokyo to focus first on completing its free trade negotiations with ASEAN.
Toshihiro Nikai, Japan's economy, trade and industry minister, told a news conference that he called for experts to begin a study next year on a pan-Asian free trade area that would include Australia, China, South Korea, India, Japan, New Zealand and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The proposed zone has a combined population of 3.1 billion people and gross domestic product of almost US$10 trillion (euro7.8 trillion).
''ASEAN countries expressed their interest and support...it will be discussed in details between now and the end of the year,'' he said after talks with ASEAN trade ministers.
Malaysian Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz said Japan's proposal ''is all right'' but it must seek first to speedily conclude free trade talks with ASEAN as the basis of such expanded regional economic collaboration.