- The Washington Times - Friday, January 13, 2006

The Bush administration would consider breaking off free-trade talks with Thailand if the two sides appear unlikely to finish the deal early this year, a U.S. trade official said yesterday after the sixth round of negotiations between the nations.

“If both sides decided they wanted to redouble their efforts, they could conclude in the time we have left. We have to determine if both sides have the will,” Barbara Weisel, an assistant U.S. trade representative, said from Bangkok.

An end to talks would be an unusual turn for trade negotiations, which often drag on for years but have not in recent memory been broken off entirely.

The administration is concerned that prolonged talks would delay the opening of free-trade negotiations with another Asian nation, likely South Korea or Malaysia. It has set an informal deadline of this spring to finish the Thailand pact, and faces a practical deadline of early 2007 to wrap up any other trade deals.

Trade Promotion Authority, which gives President Bush the power to negotiate trade deals and submit them to Congress for a yes-or-no vote without amendments, expires in mid-2007. Statutory requirements, such as formal notifications before the deal can be signed and then submitted to Congress for a vote, mean that negotiators have to finish their work months before the law expires.

“We’re running out of time here. In order for any other [free trade agreements] to be signed into law, they have to be concluded by January ‘07 at the latest,” said Dan Ikenson, a trade policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank that favors free trade.

“There’s not a whole lot of time, and the administration does want to make progress in Southeast Asia,” he said, noting that the pacts help counter China’s growing regional clout.

A dissolution or suspension would open the way for the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office, which has limited staff resources and generally negotiates with one country per world region at a time, to start talks with South Korea or Malaysia.

Ms. Weisel said she would return to Washington and discuss the state of negotiations with U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, and after Thailand and the U.S. exchange proposals next month further evaluate the possibility of finishing the deal by the informal spring deadline.

The sides made significant progress in some areas, she said, but have not begun to discuss touchy topics such as Thai sugar and light-truck exports, important commodities for Thailand that face major barriers in the U.S.

The talks in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, drew thousands of protesters worried that U.S. demands on behalf of American pharmaceutical companies would restrict Thai access to generic drugs. Thailand also has balked at U.S. demands that Thailand open its financial-services sector to outside investors.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and President Bush in October 2003 announced the start of free-trade negotiations.

U.S. exports to Thailand, led by semiconductors, telecommunications equipment and industrial machines, totaled $6.7 billion through November, making it the 23rd biggest market for American goods. Imports from Thailand, led by computer accessories, telecommunications equipment and shellfish, hit $18.21 billion.

The Thai talks are not the only ones in trouble. Global negotiations at the World Trade Organization are making scant progress, and U.S. efforts to finish a pact with five nations in southern Africa also have sputtered.

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