US refuses to budge ahead of S. Africa trade talks

Reuters, Mon Apr 17, 2006

US refuses to budge ahead of S.Africa trade talks

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The United States hopes to agree a road-map with southern Africa on reaching a trade pact this week but will not budge on key issues that have previously stalled talks, a top official said on Monday.

Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Karan Bhatia said he hoped talks on Tuesday with the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) — which comprises South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland and Lesotho — would yield a plan for boosting trade.

But he said the U.S. would not compromise on issues like intellectual property, government procurement and investment, which are important for American companies doing business on the continent, but which Africans say are too difficult to enforce.

"We are willing to work with SACU to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution but we are not willing to compromise on the ambition of our FTA, generally on the fact that it needs to be comprehensive," Bhatia told a news conference in Johannesburg ahead of talks with his SACU counterparts on Tuesday.

Bhatia said U.S. free trade agreements were the "gold standard" for such pacts and that while he did not expect to sign a free trade agreement (FTA) on Tuesday, he hoped to agree on a road-map for how to reach a deal in the future.

The talks began in June 2003 but have made scant progress.

The southern African countries have accused the United States of being inflexible by refusing to budge on the so-called "new generation" issues which effect U.S. exports to the region that tend to focus on services or high technology goods.

Bhatia denied the charge. He said the five countries — whose economies are largely based around mining, agriculture and manufacturing — had not even forged common approaches on topics like intellectual property rights and so were loathe to sign a pact with the United States.

But it was in the interest of regional powerhouse South Africa to form policies in these areas, he said, noting that the country’s burgeoning film industry was already suffering from inadequate copyright rules as people snap up pirated copies of Oscar-winning film "Tsotsi" on the streets.

The five countries already have duty-free access to the U.S. market for most of their exports under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) but Bhatia said a free trade agreement would give them greater access to the world’s biggest economy.

Bhatia said there was no deadline on agreeing a deal and that if took a while to reach a pact then "so be it".

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source: Reuters