Thai, US negotiators wrap up first round of talks

Great Falls Tribune, Montana, US

Thai, U.S. negotiators wrap up first round of talks

By JO DEE BLACK

Tribune Staff Writer

16 July 2005

Negotiators and staff members working on a free trade agreement for Thailand and the United States spent the week dining on Montana beef, eating Montana grain products and enjoying Great Falls’ hospitality.

They also did a lot of work.

Friday ended the fourth round of trade talks between the two countries, which were staged in the Electric City at the suggestion of Sen. Max Baucus, D.-Mont.

He wanted negotiators to hear the concerns of farmers, ranchers and business people whose industries will feel positive and negative effects from a free trade agreement.

"We got to tour the malt plant, the pasta plant, see a ranch and a farm and that’s no small thing for the city slickers among us," said Barbara Weisel, the United State’s chief negotiator.

The team also tackled 23 chapters of the agreement, each covering a separate industry or product.

"It’s been a very long week, these documents are written in legal text and we go through them word by word," Weisel said. "What we want is a balanced agreement for both sides that will expand trade between our countries."

Now, the sides will exchange initial offers detailing how low they are willing to go on each industry’s tariffs and by what rate they are willing to decrease them.

Offers were not exchanged on chapter’s covering agriculture. Thailand’s average tariff on ag-related imports is now 35 percent.

"We wanted to wait because we knew we’d be getting input from people out here and we want to use that," Weisel said.

Thailand’s lead negotiators Nitya Pibulsonggram said agriculture is a particularly sensitive issue in the trade negotiations.

While his country imports products such as high-quality grain and beef to serve their 12 million visitors-a-year tourist industry, it’s also the second largest producer of sugar in the world.

American sugar beet and cane farmers say if sugar import quotas are lowered, domestic prices for their commodities will crash.

"We have 65 million people in Thailand and about 60 percent of those are in farming. It’s their lifeblood," Pibulsonggram said. "But, there is a whole picture of trade that this agreement covers. We have $24 billion in trade with the United States and about 1/20th of that is agriculture."

Thailand is undertaking an aggressive infrastructure upgrade, everything from roads and rail to building construction, Pibulsonggram said. The effort is intended to boost economic development.

"Trade will be good for both of our countries. We will be looking at your technology, your service sectors to grow our economy," he said.

Montana Farmers Union Executive Director Tracy Houck said the talks were a great chance to show off Montana’s fine grain and beef products to Thai business people.

"I think they have a good feel that our production methods are quality driven," she said.

About 200 people were in Great Falls for the talks. Of those, 125 were on the trade teams.

The free trade agreement talks are the result of "trade promotion authority," also known as "fast track," passed in 2002. The law allows the United States to negotiate trade agreements and then present them to Congress for a vote.

Since 2002 the United States has entered free trade agreements with Chile, Singapore, Australia and Morocco.

In 2004 Thailand imported $6.3 billion worth of goods from the United States. The same year the United States imported $17.57 billion in goods from Thailand.

Talks for the U.S.-Thailand Free Trade Agreement should wrap up in early 2006. The next round will be held in Hawaii in September.

Once negotiators reach a deal, the U.S. Trade Representative officials notify Congress. There is a 90-day mandatory waiting period from that notification date until action can be taken.

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