Top U.S. trade official heads to Southeast Asia for talks

Reuters News

8/29/2012 5:29:30 PM - Reuters News

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk will discuss how the United States can deepen trade ties with fast-growing nations in Southeast Asia in talks this week in Cambodia, U.S. trade officials said.

Kirk will join trade ministers from the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) at their annual meeting on Thursday and take part in the inaugural ASEAN-U.S. Business Summit focusing on innovation and the digital economy.

His trip is also likely to include a stopover in Vietnam.

The visit sends an important signal that President Barack Obama's administration is following through on promises to increase economic engagement with the region, said Ernest Bower, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"I think Kirk will be pushed to define what is the U.S. plan for economic engagement" in ASEAN, Bower said.

In recent years, the United States has been represented by Deputy Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis at the annual ASEAN trade ministers meeting.

The 10 nations of ASEAN include Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, which together represent the fourth-largest trading partner of the United States.

The United States is negotiating a regional free trade agreement, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), with 10 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including four from ASEAN: Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Vietnam.

But it lacks a robust vehicle to engage ASEAN as a region, unlike China, Japan and South Korea which are negotiating the so-called ASEAN+3 pact, Bower said.

Kirk should use the meeting to discuss ways to reinvigorate a forum known as the U.S.-ASEAN Trade and Investment, which has been "moribund" for years, he said.

The United States sees the TPP as a path to a long-envisioned Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific, including all 21 members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group.

Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines are closely following the TPP negotiations, which could wrap up some time in 2013, and are considered potential future members.

But since Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia are not in APEC, they could never become members of the TPP unless the United States and other TPP participants agree to expand membership to countries outside of APEC.

Kirk is likely to visit Vietnam after the ASEAN meeting in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Vietnam is the least developed country taking part in the TPP talks and faces the biggest challenges implementing the commitments envisioned under the pact, Bower said.

Kirk's visit would be a show of U.S. support for the "massive political and legal changes" Vietnam would have to make under the TPP pact, Bower said.

(Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)