Economic ministers from Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed Saturday to work toward launching negotiations by the end of this year to forge an ambitious Asia-wide free trade agreement involving up to 16 countries. The decision was made in Tokyo at a meeting of economic ministers from Japan and the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), according to a joint press statement. The two sides had first agreed to work towards the plan when they met in August last year. The roadmap will be presented for approval at a meeting of ASEAN and Japanese economic ministers in Cambodia in August, the statement said. It will focus on areas such as liberalising trade, harmonization of systems and narrowing development gaps. "ASEAN is an important production base for our country and at the same time it is a market with remarkable growth," Yukio Edano, Japan's minister of economy, trade and industry, told a news conference. Japan also backed ASEAN's proposed pact to encourage trade and investment, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The pact is envisaged to involve 16 countries -- the ASEAN members and their "dialogue partners" -- Australia, China, India, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea -- with a total population of more than three billion. The RCEP is not expected to require such rigid tariff-cutting rules as those under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement involving a number of countries including the United States, Kyodo news agency reported.