SOUTHEAST ASIANS MEET NEXT WEEK IN PUSH FOR FREE-TRADE AREA

SOUTHEAST ASIANS MEET NEXT WEEK IN PUSH FOR FREE-TRADE AREA

Ministers of Southeast Asian nations will seek ways to jump-start a plan aimed at forming a free-trade area when they meet in Singapore next week, the director-general of Singapore's Trade Development Board said.

Ridzwan Dzafir told reporters that senior economic officials of the six Asean countries would try to hammer out differences preventing progress toward establishing a duty-free zone.Asean is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and includes Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. It is setting up the trade area as insurance against the specter of trade blocs in North America and Europe.

''We will discuss accelerated tariff reductions as well as normal tariff reductions," said Mr. Ridzwan, who will head the Singapore delegation in the meeting. Asean economic ministers are due to meet Oct. 7-8.

Mr. Ridzwan acknowledged criticism by economic analysts that Asean failed to launch a tariff-reduction device aimed at accelerating the creation of the Asean free-trade area within 15 years.

Asean governments last year agreed to cut tariffs systematically through a device called the Common Effective Preferential Tariff (CEPT) beginning this year. The aim is to establish a common market among Asean members by 2008.

"But there was some delay so we are hoping that all members could start up as early as possible," Mr. Ridzwan said.

He said that, if possible, by Jan. 1, 1994, there should be some tariff reduction on the CEPT plan, rather than waiting until 1995 or 1996 as some members have requested, he said.

Economists have said Southeast Asian nations will have to speed up forming a common market to win back foreign investment being diverted to China,

Vietnam and other newly emerging economies.