BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN (AFP) -- Sixteen Asia-Pacific countries are set to start talks next month on a free-trade zone that would cover over half the world's population, according to a document obtained by AFP Tuesday.
The start of negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is poised to go ahead despite bitter territorial rifts among planned members, including China, Japan and some Southeast Asian nations.
Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), who will meet in Brunei on Wednesday and Thursday, are expected to focus on kick-starting the talks after launching the process last year at a summit in Phnom Penh.
The leaders will agree that "the negotiations will commence in May 2013 in Brunei... with a view to completing them by 2015," according to the latest draft of the chairman's end-of-meeting statement that was obtained by AFP.
"We looked forward to the broadening and deepening of existing (free-trade agreements) and envisioned the RCEP to be a platform for future trade and investment integration in Asia and the rest of the world," the draft stated, which is prepared by senior officials and could be changed.
A senior Southeast Asian trade official told AFP the first round of RCEP negotiations is expected to start on May 9.
The RCEP covers ASEAN's 10 member countries -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- as well as Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
Together, the negotiating countries encompass more than three billion people and generate about one-third of global economic output.
The pact aims to tie together ASEAN's bilateral free-trade agreements with each trading partner, but excludes the United States which is leading talks for a rival trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The TPP currently involves 12 countries: Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam.
Both the RCEP and TPP join a profusion of regional trade pacts that are moving forward, in contrast to the World Trade Organization's moribund Doha round of global talks.
"The RCEP provides an important platform for building trade liberalisation within the Asia-Pacific, which is the world's fastest growing region," Rajiv Biswas, chief regional economist at IHS Global Insight, told AFP.
"The initiative is very important as it includes the three major drivers of emerging markets growth -- China, India and ASEAN."
Potential members have said they are keen to make progress on the RCEP, despite being engaged in diplomatic rows over various rival territorial claims in the region.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia have competing claims to parts of the South China Sea, and tensions have escalated in recent years amid complaints of increased Chinese aggression.
China and Japan are locked in an even more tense dispute over islands in the East China Sea.
And in another territorial row, relations between Tokyo and Seoul have been strained by a dispute over a Seoul-controlled chain of islets in the Sea of Japan (East Sea).
Biswas said parties would likely keep pressing ahead on deepening trade links, even if tensions over the territorial disputes continued to rise.
"The South China Sea disputes remain an important risk to East Asian relations, with growing evidence of a regional arms race," he said.
"Nevertheless, China and ASEAN can be expected to give a high strategic priority to pursuing their RCEP negotiations, given the growing importance of intra-Asian trade as a regional growth driver."