A regionwide free trade deal would benefit Asia by expanding market access, promoting specialization and expanding economies of scale, Laos' commerce minister told the conference.
"China, Japan and [South] Korea ... are at the lead of efforts to use free trade agreements in order to pursue their respective regional and global trade strategies," Khemmani Pholsena said.
In the meantime, she said, the members of ASEAN are "enhancing and deepening their integration" through the AEC.
Given the stalled state of the World Trade Organization's Doha Round of trade negotiations, FTAs are crucial vehicles "to support the deepening of production networks through trade and investment liberalization," Khemmani said.
She touched on two big multilateral initiatives -- the 16-nation RCEP and the 12-member TPP.
The "RCEP would consolidate and significantly improve on existing ASEAN+1 FTAs in achieving a modern, comprehensive, high-quality and mutually beneficial" framework, the minister said. "The TPP aims to achieve a high-quality agreement by building [on] and deepening rules that are already in the WTO."
In Khemmani's view, the RCEP may be "the preferred answer," since it includes China and India. But she said the two processes are not mutually exclusive.