Australia, NZ agree on trade pact with Asean

Canberra, Aug 28 | Updated: Aug 30 2008, 05:28am hrs
Australia and New Zealand have concluded negotiations on a free trade pact with 10 Southeast Asian nations in a deal Australia's government said could help breath new life into failed world trade talks. The agreement, expected to be signed by leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations later this year, will set up a 12-nation free trade zone counting 570 million people and combined economic wealth of over $2 trillion.

"I think it's an important signal in the overall direction of what we hope to get back on track in Doha, but in its own right it stands as a significant achievement," Australia's Trade Minister Simon Crean told reporters from Singapore. World trade talks fell apart in July after the United States and India failed to agree to cut protections for farmers and manufacturers at a meeting in Geneva. The Asean deal, which took two years to conclude, will lever open Asian markets to Australian and New Zealand wine, beef and dairy products, while Asian nations will benefit from elimination of tariffs on clothes, footwear and automotive exports. The deal is the most comprehensive yet concluded by Asean nations and could eventually be an important step toward forging a regional EU-style free trade block in Asia, which is an ambition of Australia's new centre-left government.

The pact, also the largest free trade deal yet struck by Canberra, is expected to boost regional GDP by $48 billion over the next decade, although Crean said both Malaysia and Indonesia had yet to lock in agreement on automotive goods.

"Tariffs will be eliminated in all major countries on goods representing around 95 % of trade," he said.

Asean nations would have different phase-in or tariff periods extending "halfway into the next decade" for different products, reflecting different levels of economic development. "The ministers see the agreement as paving the way to enhancing the region's economic integration and acting as an impetus to deepen and broaden the trade and investment among the twelve participating countries," Asean said in a statement.

Auto access, Crean said, had been the biggest stumbling block in a agreement covering financial services, communications, electronic commerce, business movements, intellectual property, competition policy and economic cooperation.

"We of course would have preferred it to have been more ambitious, but that's the nature of these things," he said. Australia already has regional free trade deals with Singapore, New Zealand and Thailand, and is negotiating with China, Japan, Malaysia and Gulf Cooperation Council states.