Japan on July 22 promised to help the Association of Southeast Asian Nations narrow the gap between its rich and poor members that could undermine economic integration. Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura met with his ASEAN counterparts in Singapore and promised Tokyo would soon appoint a permanent ambassador to the bloc, ASEAN secretary general Surin Pitsuwan said.
"We told them this was a structural defect within the ASEAN organization. If we can't bridge the gap, it would be difficult to create one fully integrated economy," Surin said.
Japan has already signed a free trade accord with ASEAN, under which about 90% of trade between Asia's largest economy and the 10-nation bloc will be tariff-free within 10 years. ASEAN has also signed a landmark deal with Japan's economic rival, China, to create the world's biggest free trade zone by 2010.
ASEAN leaders also agreed at a summit last year to advance a plan to transform itself into a rules-based, EU-style community by five years to 2015.
ASEAN groups oil-rich Brunei and ultra modern Singapore, with some of the region's poorest nations including Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Other members are Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2008