- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2002

Australia's bid for a free-trade agreement is moving on a slow track, even though Prime Minister John Howard's government is a staunch anti-terror ally and a key supporter of the United States in global trade talks.
The Bush administration wants to resolve small but persistent disputes over American agricultural exports before contemplating a full-fledged pact, a position that pleases the powerful American farm lobby but frustrates the Australians.
The National Security Strategy released by the administration last week cites Australia as one of the "principal focal points" for striking free-trade deals. But U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick is focusing on resolving several smaller commercial tiffs that have marred relations with Australia before talking free trade.
"There's a lot of backing in the United States and Australia for an agreement, but it's important to get off on the right foot," Mr. Zoellick told reporters last week.
In July, Australia lifted a 10-year-old ban on American grapes that was based on claims that the fruit might spread disease.
Now, officials from both sides are trying to work through a separate wrangle over pork shipments.
Since last year, Mr. Howard's government has campaigned for a trade agreement with the United States. He noted that Australian soldiers are in Afghanistan alongside Americans in the war against terrorism.
"A comprehensive free-trade agreement, by boosting trade and investment between us, would add a stronger economic dimension to the very deep bilateral ties that are already there," he said in a June 12 address to the U.S. Congress.
Nevertheless, Mr. Howard has been unable to extract a clear commitment from the United States that real negotiations can begin once the smaller disputes are settled.
"We want to do this," said a U.S. trade official requesting anonymity. "But we need to lay the appropriate groundwork."
Advocates of a deal with Australia have stumbled over the politics of agricultural trade between the two countries. Two-way trade hit $23.6 billion in 2001.
The current spat is over an Australian ban on imports of fresh pork from the United States. Australian officials say American pork could carry several diseases that may infect the Australian herd, a charge U.S. producers dispute.
Nicholas Giordano, vice president for international trade at the National Pork Producers Council, said the situation is one reason to delay a free-trade deal.
"It's a dirty little secret that a country that's an outspoken advocate of free trade is taking this unfortunate position," he said.
The pork council has kept the door open to an accord in the future, but other farm groups have taken a tough line. American beef producers have opposed a deal outright, while Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has called on Mr. Zoellick to delay an agreement with Australia until after negotiations in the World Trade Organization wrap up in 2005.
Charles Roh, a former negotiator at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, said the chances for an agreement between the two countries are slim. Farm groups, though normally staunch supporters of free-trade deals, look like they are simply dodging the real issue, he said.
"There is an element of smoke screen here," Mr. Roh said. "It's hiding the nervousness of the farmers in competing with Australia."
Mr. Roh noted that the Bush administration is pursuing other free-trade initiatives, such as the WTO talks and a deal covering the entire Western Hemisphere. The administration needs agriculture's help on Capitol Hill to build support for these deals and cannot afford to alienate farmers over trade policy toward Australia.

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