Australia lauds trade deal with South-East Asia

Australia lauds trade deal with South-East AsiaCanberra  - The free trade agreement that Australia and New Zealand will sign in Thailand this weekend with 10 South-East Asian countries is the biggest that Australia has negotiated so far, Trade Minister Simon Crean said Thursday.

"It's the most comprehensive that ASEAN has ever signed," Crean told reporters at Parliament House in Canberra before boarding a flight to Bangkok.

ASEAN, the Association of South-East Asian Nations, links 10 regional countries - Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam - in a loose trade and investment alliance.

"It's the largest Australia has signed," Crean said. "ASEAN has trade with Australia worth 80 billion Australian dollars (60 billion US dollars). It's larger than our trade with China, Japan or the United States."

The FTA was negotiated last year and is expected to be signed at the 14th ASEAN summit at the Thai beach resort of Hua Hin. The summit was postponed in December due to the political crisis in Bangkok.

The 12 governments have yet to reveal the terms of the FTA but it is believed to involve long phase-in periods for tariff cuts in the less-developed ASEAN countries. There will be partial exclusions for some products, including cars.

"In many cases the agreement will lock in low- or zero-tariff rates, introducing a new safeguard against protection," Crean said. "The agreement will help drive regional economic integration, and sends a positive signal to the rest of the world of the region's commitment to open trade flows." (dpa)