US and Asean agree on stronger links

Bangkok Post, 18 November 2005

US and Asean agree on stronger links

Panama also sought for Thai trade benefit

WORANUJ MANEERUNGSEE

Busan, South Korea - The United States and Asean members yesterday announced a joint statement calling for an ’’enhanced partnership’’ in security, economic, social and human development issues.

Kantathi Suphamongkhon, the Thai foreign minister, said the partnership, known as the Asean-US Trade and Investment Framework, could lead to a regional free trade area agreement between the 10 members and the US.

The US has already signed a bilateral free trade area agreement with Singapore and is in talks with Thailand over a trade treaty.

US president George W. Bush will meet with the leaders of seven Asean members today at the annual summit meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group in Korea. Asean members Cambodia, Laos and Burma are not attending as they are not formal members of Apec.

Thailand, one of the strongest US allies in Southeast Asia, has been a strong proponent of deeper ties with the US.

Some in the region have been discomfited that the world’s largest superpower had mostly focused on security issues and the war on terror in its policy towards Asean, with China drawing the bulk of Washington’s attention in Asia.

Asean members, who jointly announced the partnership vision statement yesterday, hope that the co-operation will reaffirm US engagement in Southeast Asia.

In addition to economic issues, the statement calls for closer co-operation in combating transnational crimes, including terrorism, halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, clamping down on illegal drug trafficking and enhancing maritime and border security.

Dr Kantathi said Asean foreign ministers would work on an action plan to meet the objectives outlined in the statement, but said no deadline has been set.

Efforts to forge the co-operative agreement had initially run into diplomatic sensitivities, with Cambodia reportedly arguing that the statement should not be called an Asean document given the absence of three members.

Sihasak Phuangketkeow, a spokesman for the Thai Foreign Ministry, said the joint vision was unrelated to the planned leaders’ meeting between the United States and Asean countries attending the Apec summit.

’’The discussions will not be made on behalf of Asean, but rather focus on issues involving the region,’’ he said. ’’Cambodia misunderstood that the joint vision would be announced in Busan on behalf of Asean. But they understand clearly now.’’

Dr Kantathi yesterday also met with Panama’s vice-president and foreign minister, Samuel Lewis Navarro, who sought support for the Central American country’s entry into Apec. A moratorium on new members for the 23-country Apec grouping will expire in 2007.

Dr Kantathi said Panama could be a potential trading partner for Thailand in the future, given the country’s key location.

’’Thailand could use Panama as a gateway to gain access to Latin America. Bilateral trade currently accounts for less than 0.5% of Thailand’s total trade.’’

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source: Bangkok Post