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Coup no threat to trade talks

The Press, Christchurch

Coup no threat to trade talks

By Dan Eaton

26 September 2006

Thailand has assured New Zealand that trade talks are not in danger after last week’s military coup.

Despite Prime Minister Helen Clark’s public condemnation of the coup, it is understood behind-the-scenes assurances have been given to Bangkok that a radical shake-up of New Zealand’s relations with Thailand is not on the cards.

The Government has been watching events in Thailand closely since disputed elections in April that led directly to last week’s crushing of democracy in the South-east Asian country of 63 million people.

Officials have expressed concern over the possible effect on the increasingly important Thai export market, worth more than $384 million last year.

"I think the problem that Thailand has had for much of this year is that the Government has only been a caretaker government pending new elections, and to some extent we have a continuation of that," Trade Minister Phil Goff said. "Nobody has a democratic mandate to make policy."

He said the "coup may have some dampening effect" on trade talks, but officials would "keep the machinery of government ticking over".

Foreign Minister Winston Peters was in Helsinki yesterday and not available for comment.

Senior diplomats confirmed a review of some policies was under way, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade was awaiting guidance on "comfort levels" in dealing with Bangkok’s new military regime.

Thai Ambassador Norachit Sinhaseni yesterday sought to calm fears for the Closer Economic Partnership (CEP) signed between the two countries last year.

"The CEP is already in place, and I have heard no indication there is a problem with that at all," he said.

"The new Government that has come into force has announced officially it will honour all international agreements and obligations and all the United Nations obligations. On Thai-New Zealand relations, I don’t see any problems there."

The Government’s political strategy for the 10-strong Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) has been to create economic links with individual members such as Thailand as a vital step to a broader regional free-trade agreement (FTA) with the bloc, in tandem with Australia.

The next phase of bilateral trade talks with Thailand covering the service sector had been due to start in Bangkok soon and may now be delayed.

The Asean-New Zealand-Australia FTA talks reconvened in Tasmania yesterday, and New Zealand and Asean officials said that they were eyeing Thailand’s delegation to see if negotiators would have a mandate to make decisions.

Diplomats said Clark’s condemnation of the coup had been conveyed to the Thai Government.

However, it is understood they have pointed out to Thai officials that while Clark regretted the coup as a matter of principle, there had been no call for a return of the previous government.

Similar positions have been taken by other Western governments, with the US saying last week it was reviewing parts of its relationship with its Asian ally.