U.S. and Malaysia to launch free trade talks

The United States and Malaysia announced that they have agreed to begin negotiating a free trade deal to eliminate trade barriers between the nations.

The decision was announced Wednesday at a crowded Capitol Hill news conference attended by lawmakers from both political parties, marking an effort by the administration to build bipartisan support for its trade policies at a time when the country is running record trade deficits.

By selecting Malaysia for free trade negotiations, the administration chose a country that is already America's 10th largest trading partner with $44 billion ( Ђ 37 billion) in two-way trade. The administration announced last month that it planned to launch free trade negotiations with South Korea and free trade talks with Thailand, another economic power in the region, are already under way.

"Malaysia has been at the forefront of the economic dynamism transforming Asia in recent years," U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said at the news conference. "Malaysia's rapidly growing economy will help generate meaningful export opportunities for our workers, service providers and farmers."

Portman said he believed the negotiations with Malaysia and South Korea could be completed by the end of the year. He said the administration also expected to resume talks with Thailand, which have been suspended until after the country's current election campaign is completed.

Malaysian Minister of Trade Rafidah Aziz said that she expected no major roadblocks to completing a free trade agreement with the United States, which she said enjoys broad support in her country.

"We in Malaysia believe this is a very strategic agreement," she said. "There is no opposition."

To show support for the deal, the announcement ceremony was attended by 12 members of the House of Representatives, seven Republican lawmakers and five Democrats, and two Republican senators as well as a number of business groups that have been pushing for the negotiations.

In Congress, however, Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman said at a House hearing on Asia that he hoped the Bush administration would not present a free trade agreement with Malaysia to the House until that country has changed its position toward Israel. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill indicated that Malaysia participates in the Arab-organized boycott of the Jewish state.

Sherman said he was disappointed that the announcement of free trade talks was made before Malaysia changed its official position on Israel.

"Coming on the heels of last month's announcement of (free trade) talks with Korea, U.S. manufacturers are now hopeful that our exports to the Asian market will benefit from a solid one-two punch," said former Michigan Gov. John Engler, who is now president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

The talks with both South Korea and Malaysia cannot begin until the Bush administration has completed a 90-day consultation period with Congress, reports the AP.


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