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US trade chief comments on ASEAN pact

Houston Chronicle, USA

U.S. Trade Chief Comments on ASEAN Pact

By Eileen Ng, Associated Press Writer

23 August 2006

(AP) KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - The United States trade chief said Wednesday a trade pact to be signed with ASEAN nations this week is a great boost to economic relations, but she urged the bloc to do more to push Myanmar toward democracy.

Trade Representative Susan Schwab said the Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement, or TIFA, with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations will create building blocks to broaden and deepen relations - previously hindered by Myanmar’s poor human rights records.

"The U.S. is still very uncomfortable with policies of that government relating to treatment of its own citizens. That said, we do not want our concerns of Burma to jeopardize our broader relations with ASEAN," she told The Associated Press.

"It has been our hope and expectations that ASEAN will always be doing more to push Burma to move toward democracy and to have a better human rights record." Myanmar is also known as Burma.

Schwab is due to sign the TIFA - which sets the stage for a full-fledged free trade agreement - on Friday with the 10 ASEAN ministers. Myanmar’s Commerce Minister Tin Naing Thein will be signing on behalf of the military junta, according to a copy of the draft obtained by the AP.

President Bush earlier this month renewed sanctions against military-ruled Myanmar following its refusal to speed up democratic reforms and free political prisoners, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

ASEAN has a policy of not interfering in each other’s affairs but is increasingly frustrated over Myanmar’s slow pace of reforms. However, ASEAN officials insist continued sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States may not help Myanmar’s military junta in moving toward democracy.

Schwab acknowledged that the TIFA has been scaled down from a binding formal agreement, to a nonbinding framework arrangement, to overcome Myanmar sensitivities in Washington but said it has not affected the purpose of the pact.

"A TIFA is designed to help create building blocks that can be used to broaden and deepen relationships. The fundamental purpose of the TIFA is served by this version. We don’t believe we have in anyway, watered down the substance of the potential of the TIFA," she said.

She said the two sides would work on creating a work program for joint trade projects but declined to say if Myanmar would be part of it.

Malaysian Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz said earlier Wednesday Myanmar’s political and human rights situations have not hindered its participation in ASEAN’s economic activities.

"We are going ahead together. In the economic sphere, we don’t think politics at all," she said.

The draft text says it will ensure that U.S. intellectual property is better guarded in a region infamous for violations. It says all parties must "promote transparency and good governance, including by combating and preventing unlawful activities in international trade and investment."

Washington has frequently complained that ASEAN member nations aren’t doing enough to crack down on software and movie piracy. Malaysia, one of ASEAN’s key members, are among several Asian nations on a U.S. watch list of intellectual property rights violators.

Friday’s agreement, in part, also addresses some of Washington’s concerns over access.

ASEAN nations remain fiercely protective over its national companies, where foreign entities - at most - are only allowed minority stakes.

Signatories must promote "an open and predictable environment for international trade and investment while recognizing "the essential role of investment, both domestic and foreign, in furthering economic growth and development," the draft said.

Associated Press writer En-Lai Yeoh contributed to this report.