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US says FTA talks must be pursued

The Nation, Thailand

US says FTA talks must be pursued

Official warns deal may miss deadline if preparatory work not done

By Jeerawat Na Thalang

10 July 2006

President of the US-Asean Business Council Matt Daley is to propose a continuation of bilateral trade talks between Thailand and the United States, despite the Kingdom’s political deadlock, when he meets caretaker Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripi-tak in Washington today.

He is concerned that the bilateral free-trade agreement (FTA) may not be concluded on time if both sides wait for the formation of a new Thai government to pick up the whole process of FTA talks.

"If everything is put on the plate of the new government, it will be difficult for the new government to conclude the talks on time," Daley said in a telephone interview with The Nation. Bilateral trade talks between Thailand and the US have been stalled since January, mainly because of the political stalemate and protests in Thailand over possible increases in the cost of medicines if an FTA were concluded.

With the dissolution of Parliament, the interim government decided to put the talks on hold because critics said it did not have the legitimacy to negotiate trade deals.

However, Daley said there were "secondary issues" that career officials could continue discussing during the interim period.

"Obviously people in Washing-ton and the United States Trade Representative understand that the interim government cannot make final decisions. It will be problematic, but we do think there are issues that can be resolved by career officials," he said.

"It’s important to resolve all these issues so when there’s a new government in Bangkok all the preparatory work will have been done. Politicians can focus on the political issues, which should be a small handful after secondary issues are out of the way."

Daley said that if Bangkok and Washington waited for the new government before restarting trade talks, it would be difficult to conclude them because the fast-track Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), an essential tool for the US administration to pass a new trade law, will expire one year from now.

Daley said he did not believe the TPA would be renewed. He cited an opinion piece in Friday’s Washington Post that said Congress was unlikely to renew the TPA.

Besides, he added: "we should not take time out, because it will send the impression that Thailand does not take the FTA seriously".

Somkid is leading a 60-member business delegation to the US and is scheduled to meet the US-Asean Business Council today.

Daley said he hoped to discuss the FTA with Somkid and caretaker Foreign Minister Cantata Suphamongkhon, who is scheduled to be in Washington later this week.

"It’s important for us to move forward. Not all issues are issues that have to be decided at the political level, but there are other things to be dealt with, because we are running out of time," he said.

Daley declined to name the list of "secondary issues". Nonetheless, he cited some examples such as tax and some definitions in legal text.

FTA talks with the US are one of the political issues that contributed to the downfall of the government.

Before leaving for the US, Somkid told the press it was unlikely that the interim government would sign any FTA agreements, especially the pending Thai-Japan FTA. He said the agreement was unlikely to be signed by the government of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who will step down after this autumn’s Liberal Democratic Party presidential election.

"Now every issue is political. The interim government has to be careful. Otherwise we will be criticised," Somkid told reporters at Government House on Friday.

Daley said: "I think it’s important that the FTA be treated as non-political. It should not be seen as a Thai Rak Thai Party issue but a national issue, even though we are waiting for the election. The FTA has transcended politics."

Thailand might be left on the sidelines, as the US administration is pursuing active trade policies, he said.

For instance, the US is proceeding with FTA talks with Malaysia and has opened negotiations with South Korea. It has completed trade deals with Oman and Peru and is seeking to resume normal trade relations with Vietnam, he added.

Concerning the possibility that Bangkok and Washington could draft partial agreements to get the process moving, instead of waiting for a comprehensive agreement, he said: "We have heard some discussions about ’FTA light’ and I don’t think it’s a realistic possibility allowed under the fast-track authority."