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US, Australia won’t reopen trade talks

United Press International

U.S., Australia won’t reopen trade talks

By Donna Borak, UPI Business Correspondent

8 March 2006

WASHINGTON, March 8 (UPI) — The United States said Tuesday it would not re-open a completed bilateral trade agreement with the Australian government to expand access to U.S. sugar markets, but would work to expand trade and investment ties between the two nations.

"This is not the time to reopen the FTA," said Rob Portman, U.S. trade representative, in a joint news conference with Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile. "We’ll be flexible where we can and where we have the need in order to provide for additional sugar."

The Australian government suggested earlier this year that it would seek to expand the current free trade pact to include greater market access for Australian sugar producers. Currently, sugar is capped at roughly 87,000 tons under the Uruguay Round agreement.

Sugar was one of the major hurdles in the negotiations, and was controversially excluded from the trade deal after Washington was heavily lobbied by U.S. farm interest groups to keep sugar out of the agreement.

While Portman and Vaile acknowledged that areas like sugar and pharmaceutical patents were difficult steps to get past in completing the free trade deal, they said they were both open to expanding their bilateral trade relationship.

"This is about our economic relationship that we want to expand and grow, so there will be requests on both sides," said Vaile.

Ahead of Vaile’s trip to Washington, the Australian trade minister has backed away from suggestions of re-opening the trade deal, saying no breakthroughs would be achieved during the first annual review meeting this week in Washington.

"We’ve always said it’s a living breathing agreement, it’s not static. It wasn’t static when it was concluded. We continue to look for ways to improve it and improve market access across a range of areas," said Vaile. Both the United States and Australia are hoping to expand trade in services.

According to the two leaders, 12 working groups were established as a result of the meeting this week in order to expand trade and investment ties between the two countries including services, intellectual property and agriculture.

One of the issues expected to arise during this week’s talks was the issue of pharmaceutical patents, which the United States has raised due to Australia’s laws governing generic medicines. The Australian government has argued that there is no need to make changes to its protection for generic medicines. Vaile said that discussions with the United States would continue, despite differing opinions.

Vaile’s visit was also surrounded by controversy with the Australian government under pressure for the Cole inquiry and an increased trade deficit with the United States which increased by more than $12 billion. Vaile was expected to meet with congressional members on the Hill, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney.

Vaile and Portman will both be attending the so-called G-6 meeting in London this weekend hoping to break the "logjam" in multilateral trade talks in the so-called Doha Round, especially on market access, which the United States contends is the most vital of all areas to make progress on.

"At this stage of the game, I am concerned, frankly, that other countries have not yet come forward on market openings," said Portman. The top U.S. trade chief said that while negotiations would be finalized in Geneva during the April 30 meeting, he was hoping that the London meeting would help to break the "logjam" in the current round of talks.

Trade officials are seeking to establish formulas and numbers by the April 30 deadline in order to prevent having to delay talks even further.

Ministers agreed during the Hong Kong ministerial last December to meet by the end of April to make progress on formulas or risk jeopardizing multilateral trade talks.

"We’ve been dancing around the issues for a long, long time now and they really need to converge on what is acceptable," said Vaile, who explained that ministers needed to narrow differences on market access in industrial goods and agriculture or face delaying talks for another year.