July 10, 2006

US, Thailand discuss resuming free trade talks

By Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. and Thai trade officials
discussed plans for resuming free trade talks put on hold
earlier this year because of political turmoil in Thailand, a
U.S. trade official said on Monday.

U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab and Thai Deputy
Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak agreed to hold "informal
consultations ... to build a platform that would allow for
rapid pickup of FTA (free trade agreement) negotiations under a
new government," U.S. trade spokeswoman Neena Moorjani said.

The informal talks will take place by telephone and e-mail,
Moorjani said.

Negotiations on the proposed U.S.-Thailand Free Trade
Agreement have been fraught with delays since they were
launched two years ago -- the latest because of a political
crisis that has gripped Thailand for months.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, faced with mass
street protests that threatened his ability to rule, called and
won a snap election in April.

However, Thai courts later declared the vote invalid and a
new election is tentatively scheduled for October 15.

U.S. and Thai negotiators last held a formal round of talks
on the proposed free trade agreement in January. That session,
in the northern city of Chiang Mai, was marked by protests that
forced negotiators to move to a new venue.

After the January meeting, lead U.S. negotiator Barbara
Weisel said the United States could abandon the free trade
talks unless they made more progress soon.

Thailand has duty-free access to the U.S. market for many
of its exports under the Generalized System of Preferences
program. That legislation expires at the end of 2006 and key
lawmakers have said it will not be extended.

A free trade pact would lock in and expand duty-free access
for Thailand, while also requiring the Southeast Asian country
to lower barriers to U.S. goods and services. .

Meanwhile, the White House's authority to negotiate free
trade agreements that can not be changed by Congress expires on
July 1, 2007. Unless that legislation is extended, the United
States and Thailand would have to reach an agreement by early
next year to get it through Congress in time.