Thailand, Aust begin free trade talks
CANBERRA, Australia (CNN) -- Thailand and Australia have begun free-trade talks and agreed to work more closely on combating terrorism and the drug trade in the region.
In a joint media conference Thursday in Canberra, the leaders of both nations said they were determined to further build on the already good relationship between the two countries.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard said the two countries would negotiate a "closer economic relationship" which he described as a "free-trade agreement – plus".
He said the CER would be negotiated progressively in sectors, rather than as one whole deal.
Australia signed a CER with New Zealand in 1983 which allows for virtually unrestricted trade and movement between the Pacific neighbors.
Asked if he wished for a similar deal with Thailand, Howard replied: "I'd be very happy if it were".
"It (CER) is more than a free trade agreement. It includes services as well," Howard said.
"As we reach agreement in individual sectors, then we will announce that agreement.
"Importantly everything will be on the table but it should be recognized that in some areas we will not reach agreement," he said.
Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said the deal would be aimed at providing mutual benefit for each country through increased trade, employment and investment opportunities.
The two-way trade in goods and services between Thailand and Australia was estimated to be worth $3.4 billion (Aust. $6.1 billion) in 2000.
The deal would be Thailand's first bilateral free trade agreement.
Along with the New Zealand CER, Australia is currently negotiating an arrangement with Singapore.
Australia is also attempting to engage the United States in talks to reduce restrictions on trade and is committed to pursuing a free trade agenda with Japan.
The U.S. and Japan are Australia's two biggest trading partners, while Thailand is its 14th largest export market.
Howard and Thaksin also agreed to look at a working-visa arrangement between Australia and Thailand, particularly aimed at making it easier for young people to move between the two countries.
The leaders also agreed to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding on terrorism and to ramp up co-operation between law agencies to help combat the drug trade in the region.
A significant amount of illegal drugs enter Australia from Myanmar, via Thailand.
Asian nations are stepping up efforts to strike bilateral and region-wide free trade deals following the failure of World Trade Organization efforts to further this agenda.
Analysts suggest that if this pattern continues, within four or five years every Asia Pacific economy is likely to be a member of several free trade agreements with regional partners.
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