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East Asian Leaders Form New Group to Improve Area's Future

I'm Steve Ember with IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

Two meetings this week in Asia could set the direction for the future of world trade, and the future of Asia itself.

In Kuala Lumpur, leaders of sixteen countries held the first East Asia Summit. The leaders met Wednesday in the Malaysian capital to plan for a united future. They agreed to create a group that will work together to improve economic, security and political conditions in Asia.

The new sixteen-member group will include both China and India.

The leaders represented the ten members of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. They also represented Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

The sixteen-member group will represent about three thousand million people, half the world's population. And it will represent about twenty percent of world trade.

Both numbers are expected to increase in the future. An expert on Asia says it will have three of the four largest economies in the world by two thousand fifty.

Some Asian leaders say the new group is needed because East Asia does not want to lose trade and influence to the Americas and Europe. Supporters say the new group could become an economic force like the European Union in the future.

But that will take work. For now, the sixteen leaders from Asia and the Pacific have agreed to meet again next year. They plan to meet in the Philippine capital, Manila, just after the next ASEAN meeting.

The other big meeting in Asia this week is the ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization. There are protests outside, as at earlier meetings.

The W.T.O. has one hundred forty-eight members. It is the only international organization that negotiates trade rules. The last ministerial conference two years ago in Cancun, Mexico, ended without a new trade agreement. Objections by poor countries to agricultural support programs and trade barriers in wealthy ones were major issues.

The United States, the European Union and Japan said they have been trying to avoid such problems in Hong Kong. They announced plans for thousands of millions of dollars in aid to poor countries. They also announced plans to end import taxes on goods from some of these nations. Some officials, however, said the proposals came with too many conditions.

The W.T.O. had hoped for a free trade agreement by the end of last year on trade in farm and industrial goods and services. Now the hope is to have one completed by the end of two thousand six. But in Hong Kong Friday, Reuters news agency said rich nations were arguing over protected farm markets. And developing countries threatened to block any deal that did not give them better prices for bananas, sugar and cotton.

European Union Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said the talks were, if anything, "going backwards." The meeting is to end on Sunday.

IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English was written by Nancy Steinbach. Our reports are online at I'm Steve Ember.