Japan may be the laggard of the East Asian economies but a Singapore minister believes a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Southeast Asia would be of more benefit to the region than a similar deal with China. Minister of State for Trade and Industry Raymond Lim said a tie-up between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Tokyo would raise trade and Southeast Asia's annual growth rate by two percentage points. He told an Asean-Japan Business Council meeting that an FTA with Tokyo would raise two-way trade flows by about US$42 billion a year by 2020. 'The benefits of an FTA with Japan would even surpass those from an FTA with China due to the complementary nature of the Japanese economy,' Mr Lim said. Analysts said that, in late 2000 Beijing stole a march on Tokyo with a proposal to forge an FTA. This year, Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi responded with a call for a closer economic relationship with Asean. Mr Lim said a deal with Japan, as far as Asean ministers were concerned, 'would include elements of a possible FTA that is to be completed as soon as possible, within 10 years'. Tokyo had already signalled its willingness to open up its protected agricultural sector. 'Minister [for Trade Takeo] Hiranum also said that [the deal] would be comprehensive and would cover all sectors, including agriculture,' Mr Lim said. 'This gesture is highly appreciated.' Yesterday, Mr Lim said that despite the decade of stagnation in Japan, averaged annual trade between Tokyo and Asean was US$54 billion, more than the US$48 billion average between Japan and China. 'Japan is Asean's fourth-largest export market, and second-most important source of imports,' he said. 'Japan is also one of the top investors in the region, accounting for almost 20 per cent of foreign direct investment into Asean in 2001.' Asean leaders are set to review progress on the China FTA at next month's summit in Cambodia. Asean comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.