ASEAN, Australia, New Zealand Trade Pact ‘Near’

SINGAPORE ~ Negotiations for an ASEAN bloc free trade deal with Australia and New Zealand are nearly completed, Trade Minister Mari Pangestu said on Wednesday.

“I think we’re nearly there. We still have one or two pending issues,” Pangestu told reporters on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Singapore.

“We are working hard to finalize (the agreement in Singapore) but even if we don’t finalize I think we are nearly there.”

Pangestu said the remaining issues for Indonesia involve timing of the liberalization of specific products, which she did not want to divulge.

“For Indonesia, the question is more about timing. We are still negotiating on the timelines,” said Pangestu, who is attending annual talks by the region’s economic ministers.

ASEAN as well as Australia and New Zealand hope to sign the agreement during the annual ASEAN summit in Bangkok in December, Pangestu said.

Australia is ASEAN’s sixth-biggest trading partner, with bilateral trade totaling US$42 billion in 2007, up 15 percent from 2006. Australia was also the fifth-biggest investor in ASEAN last year, ASEAN figures show.

ASEAN-New Zealand trade amounted to $6 billion in 2007, up 27 percent from the year before.

New Zealand Trade Minister Phil Goff has said in Wellington that “between 90 and 95 percent of the issues” had been resolved but those remaining would be the most difficult to settle.

He expressed hope negotiations would be completed this year.

ASEAN is seeking to strengthen regional trade links after the so-called Doha Round of global trade talks broke down in July because of a dispute between India and the United States over agricultural tariffs.

Pangestu confirmed that ASEAN’s free trade deal with India was finalized this week.

Officials had earlier said the economic ministers were expected to put the final touches on an ASEAN-India trade in goods pact during the Singapore meeting. Senior officials agreed on the pact earlier this month.

“The ASEAN-India deal is done. We will announce it. It is finalized and ready to be signed by December,” said Pangestu.

Total trade between the 10-member ASEAN and India amounted to $37 billion in 2007, up 29 percent from the previous year.

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