US-ASEAN deal won’t address Myanmar

Associated Press | Aug. 19, 2006

U.S.-ASEAN Deal Won’t Address Myanmar

By EILEEN NG Associated Press Writer

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - The United States will sign a pact with Southeast Asia next week to boost trade and investment, but the plan has been scaled down because of Myanmar, whose poor human rights record has hindered trade relations, officials said Saturday.

The pact, to be signed by U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab and trade ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at a meeting in Malaysia, will be called a trade and investment facilitation arrangement, which is less formal than an agreement, ASEAN Secretary-General Ong Keng Yong said.

Ong, however, downplayed the significance of the wording, saying it was a "flexible arrangement" to overcome potential U.S. congressional opposition. Washington, which imposes sanctions on Myanmar, does not require congressional approval for an informal arrangement.

U.S. officials proposed the arrangement last month as a way to enable all 10 ASEAN members, including Myanmar, to come on board and pave the way for deeper U.S. business dealings with the region, Ong told The Associated Press.

"Many people in Washington want to jam U.S. ties with ASEAN because of Myanmar," Ong said. "It’s basically a tactical move to expedite the process. We don’t need to quibble too much about these words."

"As far as ASEAN is concerned, this is to our advantage," he added. "The loaf may not be as big as we wanted but it’s still a loaf of bread."

"Whether it is an arrangement or agreement, (it) is a good step forward" to an eventual free trade agreement, which is still far away, Ong added.

Myanmar, which joined ASEAN in 1997, has become a source of embarrassment to the bloc due to its failure to fulfill promises to restore democracy and free opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners.

U.S. officials holding preparatory meetings in Malaysia declined to comment.

"What you call it doesn’t matter. They have problems with Myanmar. ... Having an arrangement gets over that political sensitivity," Malaysian Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz said late Friday.

The U.S., ASEAN’s No.1 trading partner, has previously signed TIFA pacts with Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as a free trade agreement with Singapore.

Officials say growing momentum for economic integration in East Asia involving China has forced the U.S. to consider stronger ties with ASEAN, which is spearheading the process. Washington recently said it will appoint an ambassador for ASEAN affairs.

"It is a benevolent defense of U.S. strategic presence in ASEAN, which is potentially beneficial for us," said Philippines senior official Ramon Vicente Kabigting.

He said the TIFA would bring in new U.S. funds for capacity building projects and spur investor confidence.

However, Ong noted Washington isn’t likely to ease pressure on ASEAN, which has a policy of not interfering in other members’ domestic affairs, to take tougher action to push Myanmar’s military junta toward political reforms.

"Myanmar is still a big issue to America and its Congress ... it doesn’t mean we are going to be easier off. Now they can put this (TIFA) in front of us and ask us to do more," he said.