Singapore-U.S. Free-Trade Hopes Boosted By New Bush Powers

By Agence France-Presse Singapore's hopes of sealing a free-trade agreement with the United States this year have received a huge boost after President George W. Bush gained new powers to negotiate such pacts. "We are now one step closer to completing agreements like the U.S.-Singapore free trade agreement," says Nicholas de Boursac, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore. "AmCham Singapore is a vigorous supporter of a robust free trade pact between the U.S. and Singapore, and [the] trade promotion authority will strengthen the U.S. ability to conclude effectively these negotiations." Also known as "fast-track" powers, the authority restricts the U.S. Congress to a simple "yes" or "no" vote -- but no amendments -- once the President signs a trade deal. The deal was first mooted by Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, and both sides had hoped to ink it before Clinton left office in January 2001. But several issues, including financial and legal services, are understood to be blocking the conclusion of the deal. Still, the two sides have managed to conclude at least 80% of the proposed pact and the new trade powers granted to Bush would speed up ongoing negotiations, analysts say. The United States is the biggest buyer of Singapore-made goods and sealing an FTA with the world's biggest economy will be a coup for the tiny Southeast Asian state that has suffered a barrage of criticism for pursuing bilateral trade deals with several countries. "The symbolism is that this is the largest economy in the world, so it means it will be easier for Singapore to talk to other blocs or countries," says Song Seng Wun, regional economist at G.K. Goh brokerage house. Given the economy's heavy dependence on external trade, Singapore has actively embarked on a strategy of striking free-trade pacts with several countries or blocs to ensure it has access to key markets should the World Trade Organization's efforts to further open up global trade fail. Singapore has already sewn up four such trade pacts so far. The pacts concluded involve New Zealand, Japan, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the European Free Trade Association -- Iceland, Switzerland, Norway and Liechtenstein. Under negotiation are similar pacts with Canada, Mexico and Australia, as well as an ASEAN-China deal. Singapore is one of the 10 members of ASEAN and the most vocal proponent of free trade within the group. Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2002

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