SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea, China and Japan launched the first round of negotiations Tuesday for a free trade bloc that would be the world's third-largest after North America and the European Union.
South Korea said in a statement that officials will discuss mostly administrative issues during the three days of talks in Seoul that will end on Thursday.
The meeting will determine the areas from agriculture to intellectual property rights that will be included in future negotiations.
South Korean farmers gathered outside the venue for the talks and shouted slogans against the possible free trade agreement.
The official launch of the negotiations among the Asian rivals comes as efforts to lower tariffs and other trade barriers among major economies gain momentum.
On Monday, Japan agreed to start negotiations for a free trade pact with the European Union and earlier this month Tokyo said it will join talks on a Pacific trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is led by the United States. The U.S. and EU announced free-trade talks earlier this year.
Separate trade talks are also underway between China and South Korea. Negotiations for a Japan-South Korea free trade pact are yet to resume after being halted in 2004.
South Korea's government says that lowering trade barriers with China and Japan would help reduce its vulnerability to economic conditions in the United States and Europe.
A trade agreement in East Asia would deepen ties among Asian rivals that are often at odds over political issues including territorial disputes.
"The rivalry and the tension between South Korea, China and Japan rose to one of the highest levels in 2012," said Park Ihn-hwi, a professor at Ewha University. "If the free trade deal is closed in a near future, it could provide means to indirectly address security, political or other sensitive issues in East Asia."
The three countries are all major markets for each other.