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Muslim world ally in garment access to US

Analysis
Nathan Green

Cambodia’s efforts to win duty-free access to the United States market may have taken an unlikely step forward on the coattails of US moves to improve ties with the Muslim world.

In a meeting with her Bangladeshi counterpart Dipu Moni on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged to look at the possibility of a trade and investment framework to make it easier for US companies to invest in the democratic and secular Muslim-majority nation.

In response, Dipu Moni said she asked Clinton to work for duty-free and quota-free access for Bangladeshi goods to the US market.

While it is far too early to tell if Clinton’s words will ever translate into action, US President Barack Obama’s signature policy of repairing ties with the Islamic world can only nudge talks in the right direction.

And Cambodia stands to benefit if the US chooses the easiest way forward and passes legislation already before its Congress extending duty-free access to 14 least-developed countries, including Bangladesh and Cambodia.

Few give Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Trade Act of 2009, which is currently before the US Senate’s finance committee, much hope of becoming law purely on trade-assistance grounds. Critics say Cambodia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka account for 99 percent of the total exports to the US from the 14 countries, meaning it will do little to improve the fortunes of those most in need of asssistance.

Garment Manufacturer’s Association of Cambodia Secretary General Ken Loo said to the Post last week “we are always hopeful” when asked about the likelihood that the legislation would be enacted, hardly a sign of confidence it will get pushed through.

Hopes have been dashed in the past, with two similar bills – the Trade Act of 2005 and the Trade Act of 2007 – both failing to get through the committee.

According to Loo, the two early bills were both sponsored after lobbying by the association, which has visited the US “five or six” times since 2004 to press Cambodia’s case for access.

In its attempts to lobby the US government, Loo said GMAC initially tried to go it alone before throwing the country’s lot in with other developing nations from the region, acknowledging that a regional trade pact was far more likely to get the nod from US lawmakers than a bilateral deal.

In this case, Cambodia’s beleaguered garment industry, which saw exports to the US drop 30 percent in the first half of 2009 to US$725.7 million, will hope the regional theory holds, and that it can ride in on the back of Bangladesh.

And if Diane Feinstein’s legislative aspirations are dashed purely on trade terms, Cambodia will do well to wish Barack Obama all the best in efforts to repair ties with the Muslim world.

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