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Australia, NZ, ASEAN extend deadline for free-trade talks, but hope to sign accord next year

Australia, NZ, ASEAN extend deadline for free-trade talks, but hope to sign accord next year

Southeast Asian countries, Australia and New Zealand have extended the deadline for concluding their free-trade negotiations to May and hope to sign an accord next year, an official said Thursday.
The free-trade talks between the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the agricultural powerhouses have run into some rough spots, with Malaysia reportedly complaining the two countries were insisting on including contentious issues that could stall the negotiations.
Both sides initially looked at concluding the negotiations this year, but Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Tony Hely said the deadline has been extended to May.
A deal could be signed next August during the annual meeting of ASEAN economic ministers in Singapore. Negotiations are to resume in Malaysia in late September, he said.
The deal, aimed at demolishing barriers to the flow of goods, services and investments in the sprawling region, is one of at least six such pacts being negotiated by ASEAN amid an impasse in negotiations for a global trade deal.
ASEAN hopes to conclude free-trade negotiations with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union by 2013. Possible talks with Turkey are being studied, according to ASEAN officials.
Last week, Malaysian International Trade and Industry Minister Rafidah Aziz was quoted urging Australia and New Zealand not to make a list of demands on issues that ASEAN has said it will not discuss because that would only delay the deal.
The demands include issues such as labor, government procurement, environment and competition policies that have been rejected at World Trade Organization talks, Bernama said.
Malaysia's concerns would still be the subject of negotiations, Hely said.
"The Malaysian concern is about the inclusion of government procurement," he told a news briefing. "That's an issue that's still the subject of ongoing discussion."
Malaysia has said it will not compromise on its policy of awarding tenders for government projects, goods and services to firms owned by ethnic Malays. The policy, mandated under a 1970 affirmative action program, gives special privileges in contracts, jobs and housing to majority Malays to help them close the wealth gap with minority Chinese.
Critics say the policy also shuts out domestic non-Malay firms and foreign businesses from bidding for any government contracts.
The policy has already hampered Malaysia's free trade talks with the United States, and Europe's top envoy to Malaysia, Thierry Rommel, in June said the policy was discriminatory and warned it could lead to problems in ASEAN's free trade negotiations with the European Union.
ASEAN considers its free-trade deals crucial for it to survive against the economic might of China and India. But the bloc's free-trade efforts have overwhelmed members, with some falling short on obligations under existing pacts and sanctions being proposed for any breach of the accords.
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Associated Press writer Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-05-14 15:35 GMT+08:00