Thailand won't be bound to FTA, says Sek

Critics fear TPP poses threat to Asean unity

Thailand's planned negotiations in the United States-led multilateral free trade agreement (FTA) are just a process of thoroughly studying the pros and cons of the pact, a Foreign Ministry senior official said.

It does not mean Thailand will be bound to the pact, said Sek Wannamethee, director-general of the Foreign Ministry's American and Pacific Department, Friday.

He said the joint announcement set for tomorrow between Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and US President Barack Obama on the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPP) will only be the start of Thailand's process of studying the pros and cons of the pact.

If the pact is agreed, it will have to be brought into parliament under Section 190 of the constitution, Mr Sek said.

Section 190 requires any international treaty which could affect national security or the economy to be endorsed by parliament.

After the announcement, the Commerce Ministry will conduct a public hearing before parliament begins considering the pact, he said.

Mr Obama will arrive in Bangkok tomorrow afternoon.

He will be granted an audience with His Majesty the King before meeting Ms Yingluck at Government House.

Academics and activists expressed concern over the government's decision to enter the TPP negotiations without thoroughly studying its possible benefits and drawbacks.

Prapat Thepchatri, Thammasat University's Asean Studies director, said the TPP might decrease cooperation among 10-member Asean and make the grouping incongruous as four Asean member countries - Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei - have already joined the TPP.

He said he is concerned the TPP is an effort on the part of the US to block China economically, as Washington has not invited Beijing to join the pact.

"Thailand's plan to join the TPP could signal to China that the Thai government is siding with the US, which might make China unhappy," Mr Prapat said.

Mr Sek said Mr Obama is expected to ask Thailand about China's role in the region.

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will make a two-day trip to Thailand on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Mr Sek insisted Thailand's TPP negotiations would not harm Asean cooperation, as member nations have previously joined together in bigger frameworks such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec).

TPP will only be a driving force for economic cooperation, he said.

Surachart Bamrungsuk, a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, said Southeast Asia has become a contentious ground as the world's two superpowers compete for influence in the region.

Mr Obama's visit obviously highlights the US's intention to return to the region, the lecturer said.

That the president's first overseas trip since his re-election on Nov 6 is to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia sends a clear signal, Mr Surachart said.

He urged Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to carefully consider whether to join the PTT or to concentrate on the Asean bloc as it moves closer to the implementation of the Asean Economic Community in 2015.

He suggested that Asean should remain Thailand's primary focus in terms of international partnerships.

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Writer: Thanida Tansubhapol and Amornrat Mahitthirook