Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Singapore has become the first Asian country to sign a free trade agreement with the United States.
The deal, signed by President Bush and Prime Minister Goh Cok Tung Tuesday, is subject to congressional approval. It removes tariffs on trade between the two countries, a move that's worth about $34 billion.
The tiny Southeast Asian country, with 4.4 million people and about four times the size of the District of Columbia, is America's 11th largest trading partner, while the U.S. is Singapore's largest.
The United States currently has free trade agreements (FTAs) with Canada, Mexico, Israel and Jordan. The process is at an advanced stage with Chile, and talks have begun with Australia, Morocco and a group of five Central American countries.
The deal with Singapore, the first to be signed by Bush, was hailed by the president at a White House ceremony as "crucial step forward for both countries."
Singapore already imposes few tariffs on imports, so the main benefit to U.S. companies will be freer access to the Asian country's service and financial sectors.
The deal also offers greater protection from piracy to U.S. books, movies, music and computer software.
Advantages for Singapore include a phasing-out of U.S. tariffs on Singapore goods, which include consumer electronic items, over a 10-year period.
In a statement, the office of U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said the FTA with Singapore will further enhance an already strong and thriving commercial relationship between the two countries.
It would also serve as the foundation for similar deals with other members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), it said.
ExxonMobil, one of the businesses that has been backing the FTA with Singapore, said in a statement on its website the deal would have "historic ramifications," sending a message that the U.S. would remain heavily engaged in Asia.
The corporation, which has a large refining and petrochemical complex as well as marketing operations in Singapore, urged Congress to review the agreement positively and pass it quickly.
Pushing the deal through Congress is expected to be helped by the fact Singapore has been a staunch ally in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.
During the signing ceremony, both leaders referred to the anti-terror cooperation.
"Your nation has also been a vital and steadfast friend in the fight against global terror," Bush told Goh. "Singapore has made determined and successful efforts to break up terror plots before they can take innocent lives."
He also praised Singapore for backing firm action against Iraq, and for planning to send police and health care workers to help in its post-war reconstruction.
Goh noted that negotiations for an FTA had begun in 2000, but that the reasons for enhancing relations between the region and the U.S. were "even more valid today."
American leadership was needed if terrorism in Southeast Asia was to be defeated, he continued.
"The world must not be intimidated by terrorists. We must not allow them to derail our development. Southeast Asia supports the U.S. in the fight against terrorism."
The U.S.-ASEAN Business Council Tuesday hailed Singapore as "one of our best friends in Asia" and "a model of cooperation on anti-terrorism efforts."
It said the U.S.-Singapore FTA would send a positive message about American commitment to the region, both in economic and security terms.
Singapore was singled out in the recently released State Department's annual report on global terrorism, for its leading role in exposing terror plots by Jemaah Islamiah, regarded by experts as an Asian extension of the al-Qaeda network.
In more good news for Singapore Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta lifted a recommendation that Americans avoid non-essential travel there because of the SARS virus outbreak.
The recommendation was first made on March 13, when Singapore was in the thick of the crisis. The city-state recorded the third-highest number of cases and at least 27 people have died there of the pneumonia-like disease.
Stringent measures, including enforced quarantines and school closures, have helped the authorities to contain the spread of SARS, and no new cases have been reported outside already-infected communities since April 14 - or twice the standard incubation period.
CDC director Julie Gerberding said Tuesday the spread had slowed dramatically.
Those wishing to travel to Singapore are still advised to avoid mingling with large crowds where possible, and stay away from healthcare environments that have been the hotspots for SARS in several countries.
CDC SARS travel advisories remain in place for Hong Kong, mainland China, and Taiwan.
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