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United States, ASEAN Sign Trade and Investment Pact 

The United States and the Association of South East Asian Nations have signed an expanded trade and investment pact at a meeting of trade ministers in Malaysia. The move is seen as a further step toward a full free-trade agreement between the U.S. and ASEAN states.

U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab and the 10 ASEAN commerce ministers signed the Trade and Investment Facilitation Arrangement, or TIFA, Friday in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

The TIFA calls for standardized procedures for U.S. goods entering the 10 ASEAN countries, giving American imports easier access to the region.

The deal also paves the way for establishing standards to promote trade in agricultural and pharmaceutical products.

Schwab called the TIFA "a platform that would intensify U.S. trade and investment ties" with ASEAN, which makes up the U.S.'s fourth largest trading partner.

Vince Leusner, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Malaysia, says the pact reflects U.S. awareness of ASEAN's long-term economic potential.

"It's a very positive step to formalize their trading relationship. This is a reflection that the United States understands that ASEAN is a force to be reckoned with," he said.

Two-way trade between the U.S. and ASEAN jumped 12.4 percent in 2005 and reached $152 billion. Direct investment from the U.S. to the region also increased.

But Malaysian Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz says, at this stage, the agreement is not necessarily a precursor to "comprehensive economic partnership."

The deal went ahead despite U.S. sanctions against ASEAN member Burma. Schwab said Friday the TIFA would not affect the U.S. stance on the military-ruled country's poor human rights record.

The U.S. deal was concluded at the end of a week of meetings of ASEAN trade ministers.

Earlier in the week, trade ministers agreed to speed up creation of an ASEAN Economic Community, or AEC, to 2015, five years earlier than scheduled, in the face of rising competition from the fast growing economies of China and India.

ASEAN this week also resumed free trade talks with India. Talks had been deadlocked since last year because of India's reluctance to open its markets.

As well as ties with ASEAN, the U.S. has several bilateral trade agreements within the region.

Talks on a two-way agreement with Malaysia could end in a deal by 2007, but negotiations on a similar pact with Thailand have been delayed by political uncertainties regarding the Thai prime minister.

The U.S. and ASEAN also expressed regret Friday over the suspension of the World Trade Organization's Doha Development Agenda negotiations, but said they would cooperate in pushing for talks to restart by the end of the year.

ASEAN comprises Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.