Manila: Southeast Asian nations will launch talks this week for a giant free trade pact with China, Japan, India and other neighbours aimed at easing the region's reliance on the struggling West.
The planned zone will span across 16 countries of the Asia-Pacific that currently account for a third of global trade and economic output, making it the biggest free trade area outside the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Global Insight, described the initiative as strategically very important to the Asia-Pacific as it would help offset weaknesses in the United States and the European Union.
"Fast growth in trade within the Asia Pacific region could significantly mitigate the weak growth prospects in Asia's traditional growth markets in the EU and US," he told AFP.
"The (pact) could provide the framework for accelerating regional trade and investment flows, reducing the dependence of East Asia on the traditional EU and US export markets and boosting trade amongst Asian developing countries."
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen will launch the start of negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on Tuesday in Phnom Penh on the final day of a regional summit.
The RCEP would bring together the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations with China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said a successful RCEP would further cement a shift in global economic power from the West towards Asia.
"The trend is already here. It's how to consolidate. This one is going to be a big leap forward if we can make it," he told AFP in an interview on Sunday on the sidelines of an Asean leaders' summit.
Diplomats and analysts said the RCEP could also serve as a "counterbalance" to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), another planned free-trade grouping currently being negotiated by the United States and 10 other countries.
US officials hope that the TPP will eventually snowball into a free trade area of the Asia-Pacific that will link economies spanning Latin America and Asia via the United States.