Bangkok Post, 2 April 2005
FTA talks, and the right to know
The third round of talks towards a bilateral free trade agreement with the United States opens in Pattaya on Monday, against vocal clamouring for public participation in the process. Having shown a certain openness by allowing parliamentary debate on the problems of the deep South, the second administration of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra would do better to absorb the decibels from FTA critics by opening rather than closing the door on them.
That cannot mean a complete baring of the process of negotiations, as some are demanding. It is normal and wise for negotiators to keep certain cards close to their chest. But the government can release some basic information to the public as the talks proceed, and will find that the response of stake holders as well as knowledgeable observers will be helpful.
The US side has shown know-how by making public the wide range of issues due to be discussed, and suggesting that progress, albeit incremental, is expected to be made on them all. If five days of talking indeed brings such progress, quite a bit will be achieved.
But the realities could be quite different at what seems to be the first substantive session towards the Thai-US free trade deal. The status of the chief US delegate and the size and composition of her entourage confirm that Washington attaches importance to these talks. The chief delegate is Barbara Weisel, who is Assistant US Trade Representative for Asia-Pacific and Pharmaceutical Policy and has been working on US trade arrangements with Australia and Singapore. She is bringing about 60 officials representing 12 agencies. Robert Zoellick, the former US Trade Representative well known to Thai government circles, has become the second in command at the State Department. His designated successor is Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio who is a close friend of President George W Bush.
Nitya Pibulsonggram, the consummate diplomat who is chief negotiator for the Thai side, insists that Thailand has not succumbed to US demands, and that the team is taking a comprehensive approach, weighing net gains against net loss.
Intellectual property rights and environmental issues are among the most controversial on next week’s agenda. In a recent report on foreign trade barriers, the USTR noted "deficiencies" in Thailand’s intellectual property rights and customs regimes as among "numerous concerns" about the country’s trade and investment regime that the US hoped to address through FTA negotiations. The others are "high tariffs and non-tariff barriers on both industrial and agricultural goods" and "restrictions on access to the services market".
The Commerce Ministry apparently is ready to negotiate intellectual property rights , despite opposition from civic groups like FTA Watch, HIV/Aids Infected Group Network and the Four Regions Slum Network, who fear that the US will lace more rigorous conditions on drug patents than the World Trade Organisation.
But the continued reluctance of the Finance Ministry and the Bank of Thailand to opening up financial services is finding growing criticism from knowledgeable observers. These argue that Thailand would learn from opening up if it proceeded in a well-planned manner, while continued resistance would leave the sector outdated, inefficient and vulnerable to domination by certain players.
The opposition to the Thai-US negotiations follows some off-putting precedents. The early harvest scheme with China that began in October last year has badly hit growers of cold climate vegetables, garlic and onion in the North who found cheap Chinese imports tough to beat, and exporters who were thrown by a raft of taxes after their goods crossed into China.
Figures on trade with Australia in January also suggest negative repercussions from the FTA that went into effect that month. The import of gold.from Australia jumped by 89% month on month. But Thai exports as a whole increased by 18%, led by vehicles.
Negotiations with a huge trade partner like the US requires great care. A smart government responds to the public’s right to know and welcomes specialists.