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Asian Giants Tiptoe Toward Free Trade Deal

Against that background, progress toward a free trade zone that would be the world's third largest could easily be interrupted by any flare-up in political tensions. A separate Japan-South Korea trade deal has languished since talks were halted in 2004 as they could not narrow disagreements over opening agricultural trade. Negotiating a three-way deal among countries at different stages of development, and each with industries lobbying for protection from competition is by itself a complicated affair.

"Usually, it takes around one to three years at the least to conclude FTA talks with a large trading partner, but I think the ongoing talks may take some more time, considering the importance and size of the involved countries and the fact that they are three-way negotiations," Choi Kyong-lim, South Korea's chief negotiator, told reporters according to Yonhap.

The talks between China, Japan and South Korea come amid a slew of moves to lower trade barriers as nations seek to reinvigorate economic growth that is still lagging in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis.

South Korea, which already has free trade pacts with the European Union and its U.S. military ally, is separately negotiating a trade deal with China. As part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's policies to lift the Japanese economy out of two decades of stagnation, Japan has started negotiations with the EU and is seeking to join talks for a Pacific trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership that is being led by the U.S.

"For 10 years we discussed a China-Japan-Korea FTA and nothing happened. China and Korea have very high tariffs. But as soon as Mr. Abe said Japan will join TPP, then China and Korea were keen to restart talks," said Motoshige Itoh, a government adviser and professor at Tokyo University.

Some experts see China's possible deal with Japan and South Korea as its attempt to counter the U.S. which is turning its foreign and economic policy focus to Asia. They urge South Korea to also join the U.S.-led Pacific trade deal to balance already heavy reliance on trade with China.

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