The Philippines’ trade minister revealed on Wednesday a long-awaited free-trade agreement between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Hong Kong was expected to be signed in November, as he urged the region’s businessmen to use the city as a gateway to mainland China. Secretary of Trade and Industry Ramon Lopez said the agreement was set to be signed on the sidelines of the 31st Asean summit in the Philippines in November, taking relations between Asean and the city to a new level. “This is a great opportunity to expand economic cooperation between Asean and Hong Kong,” he said at an Asean-themed conference in the city. “Asean is Hong Kong’s second-largest trading partner, after China.” “Since China launched its ... open-door policy in 1978, Hong Kong has become the premier gateway into and out of mainland China.” This is a great opportunity to expand economic cooperation between Asean and Hong Kong Ramon Lopez, Philippine trade minister The minister cited the city’s small population in claiming there was a general perception that “there is nothing much to be gained in having an FTA with Hong Kong”. But he said he was aware of its large number of tourists, many from the mainland. Last year, 566 million tourists visited Hong Kong, with 427 million from the mainland alone. In addition, Lopez said, Hong Kong could serve as the gateway to the mainland market for consumer goods from the Philippines and other Asean economies. Negotiations over the free-trade agreement started in 2014. And in May, Hong Kong’s then secretary for commerce and economic Development, Greg So Kam-leung, said the agreement would be signed by the end of this year. The Philippine consul general, Bernardita Catalla, said the key elements to be covered by the FTA included “the elimination or reduction of tariffs, liberalisation of trade and services, as well as intellectual property cooperation”. Sea change: Philippines drops tough talk against China to hail new era of economic ties “By working together, we can do better,” she added. Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of when the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague rejected Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea , saying they lacked legal basis. The legal challenge was initiated by Manila in 2013 under then-president Benigno Aquino. But relations between China and the Philippines have improved since Rodrigo Duterte became the island nation’s president last year.