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US Trade Representative Advocates Asian Free Trade Zone - 2002-04-04

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick is promoting trade liberalization during talks about a free-trade zone for Southeast Asia and China.

Trade Representative Robert Zoellick is meeting with 10 of his counterparts from ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian nations. The trade ministers are discussing how to create a free-trade zone between ASEAN members and China during the next decade.

There are internal divisions on how and when to lower import tariffs. Some countries fear local industries could be wiped out by competition from cheap goods, especially from China.

Mr. Zoellick's message is to boost foreign direct investment and trade, especially with the United States. "With the successful completion of the succession of China and Taiwan into the WTO, I think it is particularly important the United States work closely with the ASEAN countries to emphasize the growth and potential here," he said.

Two-way trade between ASEAN states and the United States has almost tripled during the past decade to $120 billion, with about $50 billion of U.S. direct investment in the region.

Mr. Zoellick is visiting Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, and China to promote tearing down world trade barriers.

But that message is being overshadowed in Bangkok, due to the controversy surrounding a U.S. decision last month to impose duties on steel imports.

China and Japan have joined the European Union in criticizing the move. The European Union is threatening to place unilateral sanctions on the United States. But Mr. Zoellick said European retaliation would be a blow to world trade. He said the United States has acted in accordance with World Trade Organization rules and disagreements should be resolved through negotiations.