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Tuesday April 3, 2007

Japan, Thailand sign free trade agreement


TOKYO (AP): Japan and Thailand signed a free trade agreement Tuesday that will cut tariffs on a wide range of traded goods, from seafood to automobiles. 

The deal still requires parliamentary approval in Japan, but that is widely expected. The Thai Cabinet has already given final approval to the accord after it was debated in the Thai legislature. 

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and visiting Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont signed the agreement at a ceremony in Tokyo. 

The signing comes a day after South Korea and the U.S. concluded talks for a free trade agreement between their two nations, reflecting the proliferation of bilateral trade deals amid stalled World Trade Organization negotiations aimed at forging a global trade treaty. 

The Thai-Japanese agreement, which reduces or iminates tariffs on farm products and manufactured goods, will boost bilateral trade that already totals 1.65 trillion baht (US$44 billion; euro33 billion) a year, proponents say. 

Under the accord, Thailand will gradually reduce tariffs on Japanese cars and automobile parts, and seek possibility to eliminate them in around 2015. 

Japan, Thailand's top export market and biggest foreign investor, will cut tariffs on Thai boneless and cooked chicken over five years, and immediately abolish duties on shrimp and tropical fruit, including mangos, mangosteens, durians, papaya and coconut. 

Japan will also relax visa requirements to Thai cooks, entertainers and boxing instructors entering the country. 

Tokyo has been pushing to forge free-trade agreements with Asian countries. It has reached accords recently with India, the Philippines and Australia. 

But talks with South Korea have been stalled over Tokyo's resistance to opening its farm and fishing sectors. 

Japan and Thailand had reached a broad trade agreement in 2005, but their planned signing ceremony in 2006 was delayed by a military coup in September that ousted then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a strong backer of the agreement. Surayud was appointed prime minister by the military after the coup. 

The agreement "will establish the foundations for a new era of intensified and sustainable friendship and partnership between our two peoples,'' Surayud said earlier Tuesday in a speech at the Japan National Press Club. 

"Japanese foreign direct investment has played a pivotal role in Thailand's rapid industrialization,'' Surayud said. "It is upon this large-scale foundation of mutually beneficial economic relations that (the agreement) seeks to build.'' 

In Bangkok, about 40 people protested outside the Japanese Embassy against the trade pact, saying it was brokered in secrecy and was bad for the environment, farmers and small businesses. They called the deal "shameful'' and called on Thai lawmakers to investigate whether it violated Thai law. 

Separately, Surayud said his interim government is following a "tough timeline for the restoration of democracy,'' and is set to hold national elections in December. 

Abe was to remind Surayud on Tuesday to speed up the return of democracy in his country, Japanese Foreign Ministry officials said. 

The two leaders were also expected to discuss other bilateral and regional issues, including North Korea's nuclear threat. 

Surayud's visit marks the 120th anniversary of Japan-Thai diplomatic relations. 

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