- The Washington Times - Friday, December 21, 2001

The Bush administration will push for new free-trade agreements with countries including South Africa and Australia next year, U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick said yesterday.
Now that Congress is on the verge of approving new trade negotiating authority, something no president has had since 1994, Mr. Zoellick sees potential for bilateral agreements with several countries. The United States currently has free-trade deals with Canada, Mexico, Israel and Jordan.
"We will talk with the Congress about moving ahead with other agreements," Mr. Zoellick said in a press briefing.
He singled out South Africa and Australia as candidates for trade-liberalizing agreements with the United States, as well as Central American and African countries. A senior U.S. trade official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the administration would like to open talks with a mix of industrialized and developing nations.
Mr. Zoellick's announcement yesterday signals that the Bush administration plans to make aggressive use of the trade negotiating authority that it has almost secured from Congress.
The House approved a bill granting Mr. Bush "fast-track" authority on Dec. 6 by a 215-214 vote, and the Senate is expected to follow suit early in the new year.
Already, global talks in the World Trade Organization, and a pact for the entire Western Hemisphere, excluding Cuba, are under way. The United States has nearly completed deals with Chile and Singapore, a senior U.S. trade official said.
Greater freedom to negotiate new trade deals should elicit interest from other countries, said Eric Farnsworth, a former Clinton White House official who worked on Latin American issues. Officials from Colombia and Panama have privately told the United States they are ready to talk.
"Right now, there is a quiet stampede to be the first in line for a deal with the United States," Mr. Farnsworth said.
Discussions with South Africa are "very preliminary," but Mr. Zoellick will push them forward when he visits Africa early next year, a senior official said. South Africa has expressed interested in such a pact, but has said it should also include its neighbors, Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland and Lesotho, the official said.
South Africa already benefits from duty-free access to the U.S. market for many of its clothing exports as part of trade legislation passed last year. But Mr. Zoellick said a free-trade deal with the United States would boost its allure for foreign investors.
"It becomes a vehicle for economic confidence and investment in their country," Mr. Zoellick said.
Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, which works on South African trade issues, agreed.
"It's not a straight import-export deal," he said. "What the South Africans want is investment, to help provide jobs there."
U.S. trade ties with South Africa are small by world standards, but the largest in Africa. The United States exported $3.1 billion in goods and services to South Africa last year, while imports hit $4.2 billion.
Opening free-trade talks with Australia would mark a major victory for Prime Minister John Howard, whose government has expressed a keen interest in free trade with the United States.
The Bush administration has diplomatically rebuffed overtures from Australia over the past year. Mr. Bush and Mr. Howard agreed during a Sept. 10 White House meeting they would study the issue.
Business groups have also touted the proposed Australian pact, and have formed an ad hoc coalition to lobby for it. Also, leading Republicans and Democrats with a strong interest in trade policy have backed the plan. They have introduced legislation in the House calling for a joint free-trade agreement between the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.
Two-way trade between the United States and Australia hit $23.6 billion last year.

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