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Thailand to start Pacific trade pact talks
Publication Date : 19-11-2012
Thailand, which President Barack Obama calls as its 'oldest friend in Asia', will begin talks to join a US-backed free trade agreement
Thailand said it would begin talks to join a US-backed free trade agreement yesterday, as United States President Barack Obama arrived in Bangkok as part of his four-day swing through Southeast Asia.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a key focus of the Obama administration as it extends its economic reach in Asia.
"The US is and always will be a Pacific nation," stressed Obama at a news conference with Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Obama, re-elected barely two weeks ago, said he began his visit with Thailand because it is the US' "oldest friend in Asia".
Yesterday afternoon, he met King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The King, 84, who was born in Massachusetts while his father studied at Harvard University, has lived in a Bangkok hospital since 2009 undergoing treatment for illnesses.
Obama also toured the two-century-old Wat Pho royal monastery, where he reportedly joked to a monk: "We're working on this budget. We're going to need a lot of prayer for that," in reference to the wrangles over spending cuts and tax increases back home.
Yesterday, Thailand also signed a security initiative mooted by the United States in 2003 to curb the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
This comes less than a week after US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta inked a defence pact with his Thai counterpart to revive their Cold War-era alliance. There are, however, no plans to station American troops in Thailand or expand their regular joint military exercises.
Obama was joined in Bangkok by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who on Saturday told an audience in Singapore that the US was keen to open markets, expand trade and boost exports.
America's renewed interest in Asia is seen as a bid to counter the might of China, which in recent years has increasingly flexed its economic and diplomatic muscle, notably in its territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Bangkok currently does not have a free trade agreement with Washington, although the US is one of Thailand's biggest trading partners, with bilateral trade amounting to more than US$35 billion last year.
Regional countries such as Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have already come on board the TPP, but Thailand has so far held out. According to economist Aekapol Chongvilaivan from Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, several of Thailand's sectors like electronics, automotive, and construction are not "competitive enough to survive a huge influx of foreign competition".
Thailand's membership of the TPP still needs to be approved by its Parliament.
Obama heads to Myanmar today to meet President Thein Sein as well as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, before attending the East Asia Summit in Cambodia on Tuesday.