KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 8 (AFP): ASEAN's trade negotiations with East Asian partners like South Korea and Japan have hit a snag over rice that is showing the difficulty in opening up regional markets, officials said Thursday.
A row over Asia's staple food is threatening to scuttle a proposed free-trade deal between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and South Korea, which opposes cutting tariffs to protect its rice industry.
Thailand, the world's biggest rice exporter, said it would not join any deal as long as South Korea excluded rice from the list of goods facing tariff cuts, according to senior officials preparing for next week's regional summits here.
They said Thailand wanted concessions from South Korea if Seoul insists on protecting its rice market.
Vietnam, the world's number-two exporter, ironed out similar problems with South Korea, which agreed to some concessions on industrial goods, they said.
Under the proposed Free Trade Agreement (FTA), South Korea and ASEAN's six more advanced countries -- Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand -- would abolish tariffs on 80 per cent of traded goods by 2009.
ASEAN's less developed members -- Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam -- would comply by 2017.
The proposal allows South Korea and each ASEAN country to choose 40 items that can be excluded from tariff reductions, provided the exclusion list does not exceed three per cent of a nation's total trade.
A senior Southeast Asian trade official told newsmen that rice was an "emotional issue" in Asia, the world's biggest producer and consumer of the commodity.
While Southeast Asian and Japanese trade negotiators have a two-year time frame until March 2007 to wrap up negotiations, they have met only twice since April as they prepared bilateral FTA deals.
Officials insist the talks were back on track and that another meeting of the ASEAN-Japan economic partnership committee had been scheduled for February.
Meanwhile China and ASEAN are in negotiations to reduce tariffs to between zero and five per cent on certain types of goods by 2010 for ASEAN's more advanced economies and by 2015 for its poorer members.