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WELLINGTON, New Zealand (October 28, 1998 - AFP)---Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka called Wednesday for a new trade deal with New Zealand that would offer preferential treatment to exports from the South-Pacific island state.

Fiji, like other Pacific countries, had preferential access under the South Pacific Regional Trade and Economic Cooperation Agreement (SPARTECA) but as New Zealand deregulated and lowered all tariffs the advantage has disappeared.

Rabuka, who arrived here Tuesday on a state visit, said after meeting Prime Minister Jenny Shipley that he wanted to make SPARTECA "more beneficial."

"Whether it will be in the interests of New Zealand industries or not they (the New Zealand Government) will have to respond to us in harmony with your own industries' feelings," he said.

He also wants New Zealand to follow Australia and relax the rules of origin rules on Fiji exports, mainly clothing.

"New Zealand will have to look at what Australia has managed to concede in the last few years, perhaps a few more percentage of derogation on the various measures that are now in place.

"These are very important for us now when we consider the state of our economy at home and the effect of the Asian crisis on Fiji."

Rabuka said Fiji was struggling to compete with the cheap labor costs of manufacturers in Asian economies.

"We are now having to compete with the Asian sources and our labor costs are not as cheap as theirs and perhaps the labor measures that we have in place should give us a better preference," Rabuka said. His formal military welcome on the steps of Parliament had to be cancelled due to a severe storm sweeping New Zealand.

Shipley, at a state lunch, gave Rabuka a particularly warm welcome, marking an end to 11 years of tense relations between the two countries following Rabuka's military coups in 1987.

Following the coups, Rabuka introduced a constitution giving supremacy to indigenous Fijians over the ethnic Indian community. The new multi-racial constitution implemented earlier this year ended that.

Of Fiji's 800,000 people, 51 percent are Fijian and 43 percent Indian, descendants of indentured workers imported by the British for the cane fields.

New Zealand exports around NZ$ 190 million (US$ 100.6 million) worth of goods to Fiji annually and imports NZ$ 53 million (US$ 28.1 million) worth of Fiji imports.

In a speech, Shipley congratulated Fiji on its new constitution, saying it was a tribute to Rabuka's leadership.

She conceded the relationship between Fiji and New Zealand had not been easy or comfortable in the last decade.

"Our relationship could not be portrayed as one of mutual complacency particularly over the last 10 years."

She added: "In politics, on the rugby field, and in troubled regions where our personnel keep the peace together our relations are passionate, complex, vibrant and vigorous. We do not take each other for granted."

New Zealand and Fiji have worked together in regional matters, particularly in peace keeping in the Papua New Guinean island of Bougainville and she hailed Fiji's worldwide peacekeeping reputation.

"Your commitment is underscored by the fact that per head, the Fiji Islands is the largest contributor of UN peacekeeping operations."

She said both countries deserved gold medals in the Commonwealth Games rugby sevens finals and New Zealand was relieved when the final whistle went. New Zealand won the gold.

"None would deny the dominance of the Fiji Islands teams in the world of rugby sevens in recent years."

Shipley stressed New Zealand, despite the new friendship with Fiji, was "keeping Joeli Vidiri," the Fijian-born All Black winger.

Michael J Field Agence France-Presse Auckland, New Zealand TEL: (64 21) 688-438 FAX: (64 21) 694-035 E-Mail: WWW:

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