The US on Friday signed a trade and investment pact with south-east Asian nations, seen as a first step towards a comprehensive agreement to reduce trade barriers.
It was one of several trade deals that the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations has been negotiating with other regional partners in an
effort to give the group a key role in the possible creation of a proposed pan-Asian trade zone.
Asean is hoping to conclude trade pacts with China, India, Japan and South Korea within the next several years, making south-east Asia the hub for an expanding regional trade network.
South-east Asia is a prime source of commodities and agricultural products in Asia and an important market for industrial goods.
The trade agreement with the US would promote the development of an “Asean single window” to harmonise the entry of goods into the region by adopting similar customs procedures.
It also calls for “speeding the delivery of innovative medicines to Asean countries”, which has been a goal of the US pharmaceutical industry.
The pact includes Burma, an Asean member, but the US has said it will not affect its trade sanctions against the country.
The US is the biggest export market for Asean and the region’s biggest foreign direct investor.
Asean agreed this week at the annual meeting of its economic ministers to resume trade talks with India, after they were
suspended last year over India’s refusal to reduce a list of 1,400 products that
it wanted to exclude from any agreement. India has since cut the number of excluded goods by nearly two-thirds.
Asean and South Korea also agreed to cut tariffs from next January 1 in spite of a continued dispute over the export of Thai rice to Korea. Thailand has refused to join the deal in protest
against the Korean decision excluding Thai rice to protect its agricultural sector.
China, which has already signed a trade deal with Asean on goods, said that
it wanted to finish talks
on liberalising services by 2006 as part of an effort to establish a trade area by 2010.
Asean’s trade deals with China, Korea and Japan are seen as building blocks for a 16-member pan-Asian trade zone being proposed by Japan.
Asean has said it would study the proposal but that it was premature to begin discussions on it before the north-east Asian trade deals were concluded.
Japan’s proposal is viewed as an attempt to dilute China’s expanding economic influence in the region by including pro-western countries, such as India, Australia and New Zealand, in the wider trade bloc.