Vice-President Hu Jintao said yesterday that the mainland and Southeast Asia should open talks 'as soon as possible' on forging a free-trade agreement to boost economic growth in the region. The comments came as the man tipped to succeed President Jiang Zemin met Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for two hours on the second leg of an overseas tour that takes him today to the United States. 'Both sides will further discuss co-operation in hi-tech industry, Singapore's participation in China's 'Go-West' programme, and strategy for Singapore and China to join hands to reach out [to the international markets],' Mr Hu said after the meeting. Mr Hu's tour, which started on Tuesday in Malaysia, has generated considerable interest as he is little known outside leadership circles in Beijing. It is seen as a key opportunity to boost his standing both at home and abroad. A spokesman for Mr Goh's office said: 'Both sides exchanged views on how the proposed China-Asean free-trade area could be advanced. Vice-President Hu stated that this free-trade framework would boost economic growth for East Asia and China is keen to launch negotiations as soon as possible.' Singapore supported an early start in negotiations. The two men also discussed Sino-US relations, and increased bilateral co-operation in information technology, bio-sciences, micro-electronics and new materials. Mr Hu said he was keen to enlist the city-state's support in the development of its poorer western provinces, the spokesman said. Premier Zhu Rongji first proposed the free-trade arrangement at the Asean summit in Singapore two years ago. The bold, but vague plan would - if implemented - create the world's most populous free-trade zone, with 1.5 billion consumers. The idea was widely seen as an attempt by Beijing to try to usurp the leadership role in Southeast Asia which has been traditionally been played by Tokyo. As the mainland economy has expanded and Beijing acceded last year to the World Trade Organisation, Asean's leaders have become increasingly concerned about the loss of investment and jobs to the mainland. Mr Hu also yesterday met Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, regarded by many as one of the most acute observers of the international scene. Unusually, he appears to be trusted by the leaderships of both China and the United States. Singapore has long had solid economic and political ties with the mainland and is the leading Southeast Asian investor in China. It is also close to the United States, its biggest overseas market and a key military partner. Mainland officials of all levels frequently visit Singapore to study the social and economic policies of the affluent city-state.