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Free-trade agreement with Laos not in cards, US official says

Green Bay Press Gazette | June 10, 2006

Free-trade agreement with Laos not in cards, U.S. official says

Some Wisconsin Hmong lobbied against forming ties with nation

Press-Gazette Washington bureau

WASHINGTON - The United States has no plans to negotiate a free-trade agreement with Laos, although the administration is pursuing pacts with other Asian countries such as South Korea, according to the new U.S. trade representative.

"That isn’t even in the cards," said Susan Schwab, who was confirmed Thursday by the Senate as the nation’s trade representative, which carries the diplomatic rank of ambassador.

During a roundtable news conference Friday, Schwab discussed the administration’s efforts to conclude a new global trade agreement known as the Doha Round while separately pursuing bilateral free-trade pacts and enforcing existing trade agreements.

Trade with Laos has been a divisive issue among Wisconsin’s ethnic Hmong, who left Laos as refugees after the Vietnam War.

Some members of the Hmong community traveled to Washington several years ago to lobby against any formal trade ties with Laos, joining similar-minded Hmong from Minnesota, California and elsewhere.

Despite the lobbying, Congress approved normal trade relations with Laos in November 2004 as part of that year’s Miscellaneous Trade and Technical Corrections Act.

However, Laos has been unable to completely benefit from that approval because it has yet to receive full membership in the World Trade Organization. About 20 countries - including Russia - are awaiting approval as full members.

Schwab said WTO membership is an important tool for change because countries take on obligations with regard to the rule of law, transparency and due process that are built into their economic and commercial structures.

"You don’t have to be fully immersed in WTO speak or be a trade wonk to appreciate how introducing very basic commercial rules can contribute to democratization," said Schwab. "And I think there’s evidence of that all over the world."

Jeffrey Schott of the Institute for International Economics, a Washington think tank, said the United States is taking a country-by-country approach in Southeast Asia. Burma, for example, is under U.S. economic sanctions, he noted, while Singapore has a bilateral free trade agreement with the United States.

"What has developed is an incremental process," said Schott.

On a global level, the Doha Round needs to conclude by year’s end to gain congressional approval under so-called fast track authority.

Fast track allows the administration to bring a trade agreement before Congress for an up-or-down vote without amendments. The current authorization expires in July 2007.

Anti-trade sentiment among the American public, fueled by the trade imbalance with China and the loss of manufacturing jobs to overseas factories, makes a renewal of fast track authority unlikely next year, according to key lawmakers such as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

Before the current authorization expires, the administration plans to bring several bilateral pacts to Congress for approval, including a recent deal with Vietnam to establish normal trade relations. For Vietnam, that’s an important step to gain membership in the trade organization in the future.

Contact Brian Tumulty at btumulty@gns

 source: Green Bay Press Gazette