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The members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will together become China's top trading partners within the next three years, a trade organization predicted on Wednesday.
During that time, trade between China and the association, also known as ASEAN, will increase at a faster rate than that between any two other major economies, said the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade.
"Thanks to zero tariffs, preferential trade policies and geographic advantages, both the increasing speed and scale of that trade will be in the forefront globally and ASEAN will become China's No 1 trading partner by 2015," Zhang Wei, vice-chairman of the trade organization, told China Daily during the Sixth Chinese Enterprises Outbound Investment Conference held by the council.
Driven by soaring market demand, the value of trade between China and ASEAN countries is expected to exceed the goal of $500 billion by 2015, Zhang said.
ASEAN is made up of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
China has a free trade agreement with ASEAN. Taking effect in January 2010, it established the third-largest free trade area in the world, just behind the European Union and the North American Free Trade Area.
Xu Ningning, executive deputy secretary-general of the China-ASEAN Business Council, said the free trade agreement has greatly benefited ASEAN.
Last year, ASEAN overtook Japan to become China's third-largest trading partner, having $362.3 billion in trade with the country, up 24 percent from a year earlier.
China had $446.6 billion in trade with the United States in 2011 and $567.2 billion with the EU in the same year.
China's trade is increasing rapidly with emerging economies at a time that it is slowing down with developed countries.
Data from the Ministry of Commerce show that the value of trade between China and the EU increased by 2.6 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2012, and trade with Japan declined by 1.6 percent in the same period. Trade between China and ASEAN increased by 9.2 percent in the first quarter.
"China's trade with ASEAN will increase faster than with the US and EU, and ASEAN is likely to become China's largest trading partner in the coming years," said He Weiwen, co-director at the China-US-EU Study Center at the China Association of International Trade.
He attributed the trade momentum between China and ASEAN to the country's increasing imports from the Southeast Asian bloc.
Zhang of CCPIT said the Chinese market has a strong demand for farm produce, mechanical processing and marine products, and those make up the bulk of ASEAN's exports to China.
China, the world's largest exporter and the second-biggest importer, plans to rely less on exports in coming years, and to drive its economy by encouraging its population to buy more.
The ministry said China will encourage importers to buy more from countries that have free trade agreements with China, such as Pakistan, New Zealand and ASEAN members.
Premier Wen Jiabao has vowed to import more from ASEAN.
"China would like to further expand imports from ASEAN and we hope enterprises from ASEAN members can gain a greater market share through the newly established Sino-ASEAN Goods Trade Center," Wen said during the China-ASEAN Business & Investment Summit in October.
He Weiwen, from the China Association of International Trade, said the country should develop its trade with neighboring countries while maintaining stable growth in trade with the US and EU.
During a visit to China, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra praised China's role in the ASEAN economy.
"China is an engine of economic growth that can help spur the development of the entire region," Yingluck said.