February 9, 2006

Thai PM sees no rush to wrap up US trade talks

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand sees no need to wrap up free
trade talks with the United States in the next few months as
suggested by Washington, which threatened to walk away from a
deal if it is not done by then, Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra said on Thursday.

"We don't need to conclude the deal if we don't accept
their proposals," Thaksin told the country's panel of economic
and social advisors when asked about Washington's demand that
talks be wrapped up by the northern hemisphere spring.

"We won't have to finish it if we deem it's not fair to
us," Thaksin told the National Economic and Social Advisory

Barbara Weisel, chief U.S. negotiator for the bilateral
trade deal, said last month Washington could abandon free trade
talks with Thailand unless Bangkok agreed to redouble efforts
to reach an agreement by spring.

The five-day negotiations in the Thai northern city of
Chiang Mai last month were disrupted briefly by thousands of
protesters demanding a halt to talks they said would benefit a
few business groups at the expense of the poor.

But Thaksin insisted on Thursday the free trade agreement
with the United States was vital for the Thai economy and its
trade balance, which could run a huge trade deficit without it.

"If we didn't have the U.S. market, we could run a trade
deficit of 700 billion baht, which is frightening and we must
bear this in mind and balance it," Thaksin said, referring to
the equivalent of $17 billion.

No deadline should be set, he said.

Thailand started free trade talks with Washington in a bid
to boost exports to the United States, its largest market, in
2004 when Thai exports were worth $15 billion.

The Bush administration has never formally abandoned free
trade talks, although some negotiations -- such as one with
south Africa and several of its neighbors -- have gone on for
years without conclusion.

The latest talks made some progress as Washington proposed
waiving tariffs on 74 percent of 10,500 Thai industrial goods
estimated to be worth $12.8 billion.

But controversial issues such as intellectual property and
drug patents, liberalization of financial services and telecoms
were far from being settled.

Protests were led by anti-free traders and non-governmental
organizations who fear the deal will threaten Thailand's
generic drug industry, key to its battle against HIV/AIDS.

They added to pressure on the Thai chief negotiator, Nitya
Pibulsonggram, who resigned last month.

The Thai government appointed the U.S.-educated Karoon
Kittisathaporn, a senior Commerce Ministry official to replace

($1=39.70 baht)