- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

A growing number of countries are competing for bilateral free-trade agreements with the United States as broader global and regional trade talks bog down.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick will be in Colombia this week to review a possible trade agreement with President Alvaro Uribe. Colombia is one of dozens of countries seeking free-trade agreements with Washington.

The clamor for closer trade ties recognizes that the United States is the world’s biggest market, but also reflects concerns that hemispherewide and global trade talks may not be as ambitious as some hope, or may not meet deadlines for completion.

“We feel that we need to be able to advance our economic relationship … and realistically, the best way is a free-trade agreement,” said Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Luis Alberto Moreno.

“We feel that whatever the [Free Trade Area of the Americas] will accomplish, it will not be as broad as a bilateral agreement,” he said, referring to ongoing negotiations among 34 countries in the hemisphere to create a free-trade zone.

The “competitive liberalization” of markets is a central component of Mr. Zoellick’s trade strategy. The Bush administration works with countries that favor open markets, and leaves behind those that favor protectionism.

In addition to spurring bilateral talks, the strategy has helped move along broader trade discussions, Mr. Zoellick said.

“We’re already seeing the effect of the competition strategy,” Mr. Zoellick told reporters last month, after a meeting with congressional leaders.

At the meeting, he consulted with lawmakers on the next candidates for free-trade agreements: the Dominican Republic and Bahrain. Congress on Monday received letters confirming the administration’s intent to start talks with the two countries.

Hugo Guiliani, the Dominican Republic’s ambassador to the United States, said his country fought for a place at the negotiating table because it did not want to lose any competitive advantage, and it did not want to wait for Free Trade Area of the Americas talks to finish.

“There is some question if other countries will participate in the FTAA, because it has to be by consensus. We cannot wait,” he said.

Ultimately, the bilateral talks will spur a broader agreement, he said. “But it is a question of who is ready and able. We are ready and able.”

In addition to this week’s announcements, negotiations are under way with Morocco, Australia, a five-nation bloc in Central America and another five-nation group in southern Africa. The Dominican Republic is expected to become a part of the Central American talks.

The Senate last week approved agreements with Singapore and Chile.

“While we’re working actively on these small regional or bilateral agreements, I’m spending a lot of my time as well on the [World Trade Organization] and the FTAA,” Mr. Zoellick said.

Completion of global talks at the 146-member WTO and hemispherewide talks by January 2005 is the ultimate goal for pro-free-trade groups and businesses. Whether the administration’s policy helps that is hotly debated.

“Our view is that the policy is a positive one, provided we don’t lose sight of the grand prize,” said Bill Lane, Washington director for heavy-equipment manufacturer Caterpillar Inc.

A recent study by the Cato Institute, a libertarian, pro-free-trade think tank, said that the bilateral agreements help keep multilateral talks on track.

Not everyone agrees. Robert Litan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that the ultimate goal would become more elusive with a proliferation of bilateral agreements.

“The public rationale for the deals is to put pressure on the countries to support Doha before they get left in the cold. The reality is that a majority of countries will say [forget] Doha, let’s get a deal with the U.S. instead,” he said, referring to the formal name for the WTO talks, the Doha Development Agenda.



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