SOUTHEAST Asia's economic ministers were last night locked in talks to dramatically speed up free trade efforts as part of 'bold measures' to solve the region's economic crisis. The meeting, before Tuesday's Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders' summit in Hanoi, attempted to bring forward the Asean Free Trade Area (Afta) to 2000, while unifying investment regulations faster than expected, diplomatic sources said. 'The ministers know they've got to take strong action and that's what they are trying to do,' said Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Kobsak Chutikul. 'They are seeking far bolder measures than expected. Whether consensus can be found is another matter. There are many different views being expressed.' At the core of the talks is a drive to lower tariffs on certain goods to zero by 2000 instead of 2003, or 2006 in the case of Asean's newer members, Vietnam, Laos and Burma, diplomatic sources said. They are also seeking to widen the list of products involved - a schedule previously neutered by the exclusion of anything deemed strategic, such as most key agricultural exports. Industrial liberalisation in a region dubbed the Asean Investment Area could also take place far earlier than the suggested 2010 under proposals now under closed-door debate, sources said. Other topics included the speedy creation of a regional bond market and the linking of regional currencies. Vietnam's Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam confirmed Afta was under scrutiny but refused to go into details. He said a two-tier system splitting old and new members would remain even if the schedule was pulled forward. The grouping was keen to send a message to the outside world that 'it continues to be confident of our future recovery and that can reach sustained development', Mr Cam said. Diplomats and officials warned privately that urgent and creative measures were needed to limit ongoing fall-out and boost the morale and credibility of a troubled grouping that has struggled for cohesion in recent months. An internal briefing paper prepared before the session pledges that ministers will 'spare no efforts to quickly restore financial and macroeconomic stability, bring about early economic recovery and maintain sustained economic growth'. The paper added: 'Asean will keep its markets open as it recognises that the key to strengthening and stabilising the region's currencies is to attract long-term investment.' But sources said the statement did little to mask the cracks in the grouping. Asean now pits economies earnestly accepting International Monetary Fund medicine, such as Thailand, against still-reticent regimes in Vietnam and Burma and an increasingly isolationist Malaysia. 'The typhoons spiralling out of the crisis are further splitting us both economically and politically,' one senior Indonesian official warned after preparatory meetings. 'On the economic front there is a tiredness creeping in - we are stuck in an atmosphere of impotence and frustration.' Thai Commerce Minister Supachai Panitchpakdi confirmed that discussions also involved the creative use of about US$30 billion in emergency Japanese assistance and how to pull in more help in aid and investment from industrialised nations. The latter could prove contentious, particularly for the economies of newer members such as host Vietnam, a nation now wary of fast reform, analysts believe. Hanoi has seen investment from Asean nations crash in the past 18 months and will face stiff competition from neighbours as capital starts to flow again. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is also expected to visit Hanoi but the chances for his country's speedy entry to Asean are looking dim.