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U.S. Wants Free-Trade Talks With Five More Asean Members

Possible Pacts With Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines In Line With Bush Goals

March 18, 2005

MANILA, Philippines -- The U.S. expects to open bilateral free-trade negotiations with five more members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to expand economic ties with these countries, a visiting senior U.S. official said Thursday.

Barbara Weisel, assistant U.S. trade representative in the Asian-Pacific region, told a news conference the U.S. is looking at negotiating with the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Cambodia for free-trade agreements.

The possible talks are in line with President George W. Bush's Enterprise for Asean Initiative, which offers the opportunity of bilateral FTAs with countries that already have Trade and Investment Framework Agreements with the U.S. and are members of the World Trade Organization.

The U.S. has completed an FTA with Asean member Singapore and is in early negotiations with Thailand, another member. Asean also includes Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. FTAs are reciprocal and ambitious agreements that open markets and strip away barriers across a broad array of goods, services, and agricultural products.

For the Philippines, a study by American think tank East-West Center indicated that the country's nominal gross domestic product would grow by 3.1 percentage points once it entered an FTA with the U.S., Ms. Weisel said.

Manila already is in bilateral FTA talks with Japan, one of its biggest trading partners.

The U.S. hopes to further open up the Philippine economy in the areas of services and investments. Among the sectors likely to be liberalized are financial services and telecommunications.

No time frame has been set for FTA negotiations between the two countries.

"We have said that we are ready when they are ready," Ms. Weisel said. "This needs to be a very thoughtful decision so that both enter into negotiations fully prepared and to ensure that they are successful."

She pointed out that U.S. FTA standards are higher than other countries', and the process is more difficult as it involves a commitment to structural changes and liberalization "to ensure that the FTA achieves the results that are intended." The objective, she said, is to "tie our futures in a way that we have common goals" that will result in a win-win opportunity for both sides.

Write to Ditas Lopez at ditas.lopez@dowjones.com