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BANGKOK (Kyodo) Thai Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak said Friday that Japan and Thailand would sign a bilateral Economic Partnership Agreement containing free-trade elements by July.

“Japan has given us a way out on the steel issue,” Somkid, who is also finance minister, told reporters after meeting with Shoichi Nakagawa, minister of economy, trade and industry, for an hour at the Finance Ministry.

Somkid did not elaborate on Tokyo’s proposal but said chief negotiator Pisan Manawapat from the Foreign Ministry would continue to discuss the proposal with his Japanese counterparts.

“We will not let any trade injury on our automobile industry,” Somkid said. “We will take good care of that.”

He said the two countries stressed the need to emphasize their “economic partnership,” adding that a free-trade agreement is a smaller issue requiring mutual benefits.

Thailand’s auto, auto-parts and steel industries have remained adamantly opposed to free-trade talks because Japan has been targeting those industries to boost imports.

Nakagawa later had a meeting with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in which both men agreed to strive to reach an agreement by July, according to Japanese officials.

Thaksin also indicated that if such an accord was struck, he might visit Japan on the occasion of the Aug. 12 “national day” designated for Thailand at the World Exposition in Aichi Prefecture to sign it, sources with access to the meeting said.

Last week, Thaksin sent a letter to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi asking Japan to give Thailand greater market access for sugar, footwear, canned pineapple, and other farm and fisheries products, in exchange for greater flexibility in steel imports from Japan.

Thaksin told reporters earlier Friday that the government would do its utmost to look after Thai interests, “but there might be some (negative) effects on some businesses.”

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