Vol. 5 Num 263 Tue. February 22, 2005  

Australia, NZ, Asean launch FTA talks

Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile launched talks here Monday aimed at sealing a free trade pact between the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), Australia and New Zealand.

The meeting of senior trade officials came after an agreement reached between leaders of the 12 countries at Asean's meeting in Laos last November to complete negotiations within two years and to implement a free trade agreement (FTA) fully within 10 years.

An agreement with Asean would be the latest of a string of FTAs which Australia has already negotiated. Its long standing pact with New Zealand was followed by similar agreements with Singapore, the United States and Thailand and it has recently begun talks on a deal with Malaysia.

Vaile told the meeting Australia's existing FTAs had set an important benchmark for comprehensive agreements of high-quality but all were intended to support rather than detract from multilateral trade liberalisation through the World Trade Organisation.

"While we will negotiate free trade agreements, we do not see this as being at the expense of Australia's core commitment to the WTO and to progressing the Doha Round of trade negotiations," he said.

"The Australian government's position on FTAs is clear: we pursue FTAs where these can deliver significant economic gains ahead of the timeframe possible in the WTO."

He said that with over 545 million people and a combined gross domestic product of around 682 billion US dollars, "Asean offers exciting prospects for Australia."

The initial round of talks had allowed the officials to map out the way forward for the negotiations, he said, adding: "Our job is to complete the FTA within two years."

Vaile said the 12 countries had agreed the FTA should be comprehensive and seek to progressively eliminate barriers to trade affecting goods, services and investment.

Canberra estimates the Asean members already provide a market for more than 17 billion Australian dollars (13.4 billion US) of exports of goods and services.

Asean groups Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.