Malaysia brushes off US pressure for FTA decision

AP , KUALA LUMPUR

Mon, Mar 19, 2007 - Page 10

Malaysia will not bow to pressure from Washington to meet the White House's fast-closing window to push a free trade agreement (FTA) through Congress without amendments, Malaysia's deputy leader said yesterday.

At least five rounds of talks between Malaysia and the US have so far ended in a deadlock, mainly because of a disagreement over the way Kuala Lumpur awards government contracts.

Reports in Malaysia's media yesterday said Washington had all but ruled out a successful conclusion by July -- when US President George W. Bush's fast-track authority expires.

The authority allows Bush to submit a trade deal to Congress for a straight up-or-down vote without amendments. Negotiators must conclude a deal by the end of this month to allow US lawmakers three months to review it and then vote.

"We will not be tied down to any timeframe and we want to look into all details thoroughly before making a decision," Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said. "The US will not pressure us. Of course, we know the US wants an early resolution but they also understand some issues take time to be finalized."

The two countries are looking at 18 areas in the talks, including industrial goods, customs procedures, intellectual property rights, agriculture, financial services and telecommunications.

Two-way trade between Malaysia and the US totaled US$44 billion in 2005, which officials say will double by 2010 if a free trade pact is signed.

The key obstacle to the negotations is Malaysia's affirmative action program that awards government tenders to Malay-owned firms.

Recently, US Ambassador to Malaysia Christopher LaFleur and US lobby groups have urged Malaysian officials to finish the agreement before Bush's fast-track authority expires.