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Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong on Sunday underscored the strategic importance of a free-trade agreement to be negotiated between his nation and Japan at a time when both Europe and the United States are looking to expand their own regional FTAs.

Earlier in the day, Goh and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori agreed on the January launch of negotiations toward a comprehensive bilateral FTA that would facilitate free trade and services between the two countries, including in the field of information technology.

At a press conference after the meeting with Mori, Goh stressed that the bilateral FTA would be the first arrangement by two Asian countries and that it could promote similar moves in the region.

“Strategically, this is a very important step. Northeast Asia is being linked to southeast Asia first through the Japan-Singapore free-trade arrangement. Subsequently, I think, other activities will follow . . . This is very important for Asia,” Goh said.

He also noted that, after the failure of the meeting of the World Trade Organization to initiate a new round of multilateral trade talks in Seattle last year, the European Union has moved to expand its membership, and the U.S. is exploring the possibility of enlarging the North American Free-Trade Agreement to include South America.

At the same time, however, Goh stressed that the Japan-Singapore FTA would be fully consistent with rules stipulated by the WTO, which the two countries believe should set rules for global trade.

The Seattle failure prompted Singapore to seek bilateral FTAs, and it is currently looking into the possibility of signing FTAs with Canada, Mexico and South Korea, Goh said.

Goh also expressed his view that, if the new WTO round is launched next year and multilateral trade negotiations proceed, the popularity of regional free-trade agreements may recede.

In contrast, if the new round is not launched by the end of next year, it may facilitate moves toward regional trade arrangements in the long run, he said.

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