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ASEAN aims to ink free trade pact with Japan in November

Associated Press | Thursday May 3, 2007

ASEAN aims to ink free trade pact with Japan in November

KUALA LUMPUR: Southeast Asian countries aim to sign a free trade pact with Japan in November, and will try to remove obstacles in the negotiations at a ministerial meeting in Brunei this week, an official said Thursday.

Ong Keng Yong, secretary-general of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said the bloc’s economic ministers and their Japanese counterpart would discuss ways to free trade in goods during talks Friday.

The two sides will spell out the percentage of total trade that will be tariff-free by an agreed date, the amount that will be subject to a gradual tariff reduction, and sensitive items that will be excluded altogether because of domestic concerns, he said.

"After the ministers agree on the modalities, actual negotiations can begin. The aim is to complete it in time for signing during the ASEAN leaders’ summit on Nov. 18-21 in Singapore,’’ Ong said in a telephone interview from Brunei.

Japan was ASEAN’s second-largest trading partner in 2005 after the United States, with two-way trade totaling US$153.8 billion (euro118 billion) or 12.6 percent of the region’s total trade, according to ASEAN.

ASEAN economic ministers began a two-day retreat in Brunei on Thursday.

They are to meet with Japanese Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Akira Amari as well as European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson on Friday.

ASEAN diplomats have said Japan is eager for a deal as soon as possible so it wouldn’t be left out, as the bloc has already inked free trade pacts with South Korea and China.

Ong said Japan has proposed that 1 percent of its trade with ASEAN be excluded from tariff reductions but didn’t specify the items to be excluded. Tariffs on 88 percent to 92 percent of total trade are expected to be fully cut and the rest to be removed gradually, he said.

"We want to know what it is that they want to exclude. We cannot accept the idea of 1 percent exclusion. Trade between ASEAN and Japan is so large that 1 percent can cover many, many items,’’ he said.

Ong said complications also arose because Japan already has bilateral free trade pacts with four ASEAN members - Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines - and is negotiating with Indonesia, Vietnam and Brunei.

"Japan has individual FTAs with ASEAN nations, all using different modalities. The question is how do we weave this into a region-wide agreement,’’ he said.

"I think we can finish all the broad strokes and have it ready for signing by November, but we have to work very hard.’’

Ong said ASEAN ministers would also seek to launch free trade negotiations with the EU during talks with Mandelson.

Officials from the EU, which currently applies economic and political sanctions against military-ruled Myanmar, have said talks depend on ASEAN meeting human rights standards.

ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

 source: The Star