Singapore to ink landmark free trade pact with U.S.

Monday, May 5, 2003

PThe pact is the first of its kind between the United States and an Asian country.

By Alexa Olesen ~ The Associated Press

SINGAPORE -- Singapore's prime minister left Sunday for Washington to sign a free trade agreement -- the first such pact between the United States and an Asian country.

The deal is being touted as a way for Washington to increase its economic presence and visibility in Southeast Asia, which may help it engage millions of Muslims in the region.

A staunch U.S. ally, Singapore's support for the war in Iraq has contrasted with the vocal opposition coming from its predominantly Muslim neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Winning over Muslims

"Winning over Muslim hearts and minds is very important," especially in the wake of the Iraq war," Singapore Trade Minister George Yeo said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington last week. "It is important that they see in globalization and freer trade a message of hope for themselves and their beliefs."

Conceived during a golf game between Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, the U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement will wipe out tariffs and other trade barriers on about $33 billion in annual trade between the two nations.

The pact is scheduled to be signed by Goh and President Bush on Tuesday.

Largest investor

The United States is Singapore's largest foreign direct investor and its second-largest trading partner. There are about 1,300 American companies in Singapore.

Singapore is the United States' 11th-largest trading partner, but because Singapore imposes virtually no import tariffs, the U.S. advantage will be in greater access to the financial and other service sectors in one of Asia's main financial centers.

It will also offer the United States a blueprint for similar pacts with other Asian nations.

For Singapore, a city-state of 4 million people with virtually no natural resources, the agreement will mean tariff savings of about $110 million a year because all U.S. import duties will be lifted.

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