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PM stays coy on US-led trade pact

Bangkok Post, Thailand

PM stays coy on US-led trade pact

Yingluck to ask Obama for details

18 November 2012

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra says she will not give a commitment to President Barack Obama today that Thailand will join the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement.

However, Ms Yingluck said she would ask for more details of the TPP _ which has been criticised by some US congressmen and foreign policy experts for not being transparent _ so it could be further studied. Local academics and consumer advocates have warned that entry into the TPP would hurt consumers and Thailand’s economic competitiveness.

"A number of parties have expressed concern about Thailand’s participation in the TPP," Ms Yingluck said.

"No agreement has been made. We are only expressing interest in studying the details and the pros and cons. ... There will be no talks with [US] President Barack Obama."

Suranand Vejjajiva, the PM’s secretary-general, said no firm commitment or negotiations would be held between the two leaders today. "There will be neither a negotiation nor a signing [of the TPP] when the two leaders meet. The premier will only announce Thailand’s intention to enter into the negotiations in a joint press statement," Mr Suranand said.

Mr Obama, who will make his first visit to Thailand today as part of a four-day tour of Southeast Asia, has made expanding the TPP a top priority for US foreign and trade policy.

A joint statement by Mr Obama and Ms Yingluck following their meeting today at Government House is expected to affirm Thailand’s interest in joining the TPP pact.

Cabinet ministers on Tuesday approved a proposal to announce Thailand’s interest in joining the TPP.

Ms Yingluck said any final decision to join the TPP would have to be approved by the cabinet and the parliament, and that the views of all parties would be considered before any decision is made.

Thailand is the 12th country interested in the TPP, a trade pact originally launched by Chile, New Zealand and Singapore but which has now expanded to include talks with Australia, Vietnam and Malaysia.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US hopes to combine the TPP with other regional trade agreements.

"We continue to consult with Japan, and we are offering to assist with capacity building so that every country in Asean can eventually join," Mrs Clinton said in a speech in Singapore.

"We welcome the interest of any nation willing to meet the 21st century standards of the TPP _ including China."

The provisions of the TPP, which include issues such as environmental and labour standards and expanded protection for patents and intellectual property, go well beyond existing commitments made by Thailand under regional trade agreements such as Asean or through global agreements with the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Supachai Panitchpakdi, the secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad), cautioned against a rush to join the TPP, which he termed a "next-generation free-trade agreement".

Thailand would potentially benefit more under trade liberalisation talks under way between Asean, China, Korea and Japan (Asean+3), as well as a separate initiative that would combine Asean+3 with India, Australia and New Zealand, he said.

"Thailand may lack policy space [under the TPP]. Neither China nor Japan have entered the TPP talks, and there is a concern that there may be imbalances between the large members and the smaller ones," said Mr Supachai, a former Thai deputy premier and WTO chief. "Ultimately, the US is leading the direction of the TPP."

Academics and consumer advocates warn that accepting the TPP could result in losses for the country’s rice market, higher drugs prices and a loss in national sovereignty in setting domestic development policies.

Jiraporn Limpananont, chairwoman of the Foundation of Consumers, said under the TPP, patent protection for pharmaceuticals would increase to 25 years from 20 now, leading to an increase in drug prices for patients.

The foundation estimates drug costs would increase by 20 billion baht per year within the fifth year after entering the TPP, and by 120 billion after 30 years.

"We must join together to fight and prevent adoption of this unfair arrangement," Dr Jiraporn said yesterday at a conference on the TPP at Chulalongkorn University.