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10 October 2009

US prepares to talk free trade with Asean

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The United States is beginning to lay the initial groundwork for talks to forge a free trade agreement with Southeast Asia, ahead of President Barack Obama's maiden trip to the region, AFP reported.

A senior US senator will propose a resolution on Tuesday encouraging Obama administration officials to initiate the negotiations, warning about competition from China and other powers which have already sealed pacts with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

"The United States should proceed to develop a comprehensive strategy toward engaging Asean in serious FTA discussions," said Senator Dick Lugar, the Republican party leader in the powerful Senate foreign relations committee.

Lugar admitted that the free trade endeavour would be "complex and have possible challenges to negotiation given the varying levels of economic development and open markets among ASEAN countries".

But he pointed out that "China, India, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea have already finalised FTAs with Asean and are sharpening a competitive edge over the US in Southeast Asia".

Ongoing trade sanctions with military-ruled Myanmar, one of 10 Asean member states, should not deter US efforts to reach an FTA with the rest of the grouping, which also include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, Lugar said.

Lugar's resolution prodding the office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) to pursue the free trade agreement is expected to attract support from Democratic Party senators, congressional sources said.

Obama will hold his first-ever official summit between a US president and leaders of the 10 Asean member states when he is in Singapore for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum in mid-November. 


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