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Bush Administration Urges Congress to Back Trade Ties With Vietnam

The Bush administration is calling on Congress to approve normal trade relations with Vietnam.

Congress must endorse permanent normal trade relations with Vietnam before that country can join the World Trade Organization.

Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Karan Bhatia called pending legislation to do just that, another milestone in a process that began over 15 years ago when the United States restored diplomatic relations with Vietnam.

The pact would require Hanoi to lower import barriers on a broad range of U.S. goods and services, while the United States would have to give Vietnam the same tariff treatment other WTO members enjoy.

Testifying before the Senate Finance Committee, Bhatia called on lawmakers to act before they leave on their August recess.

"We believe that WTO accession for Vietnam will benefit the United States economically, it will promote reform in Vietnam and it will support broader American interests in Southeast Asia," said Representative Bhatia.

There appears to be strong bipartisan support for extending such trade benefits to Vietnam.

"The time is now, before other countries, like China, beat us to the punch, by benefiting first from Vietnam's market-opening commitments," said Senator Max Baucus is a Montana Democrat.

But some critics remain concerned about Vietnam's human rights record.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric John acknowledged those concerns, but he said there is evidence of progress.

"Vietnam continues to restrict fundamental freedoms, and the Department of State's 2005 Human Rights report categorizes the country's human right record as unsatisfactory," he noted. "On the other hand, there has been some progress in certain areas. In the last 18 months, 18 prisoners of concern to the United States have been released."

John also cited progress in religious freedom in Vietnam.

Administration officials argue that granting Vietnam permanent normal trade relations would help promote the rule of law and transparency in that country, and bring about further freedoms and human rights improvements.

But other critics say Vietnam's heavy subsidies and other unfair trade practices have hurt the U.S. textile industry, and that now is not the time to reward that country with normal trade relations.

Augustine Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, said granting Vietnam permanent normal trade relations would replicate the flawed trade policy model of allowing China to join the WTO before that country made the sufficient progress in transitioning from a non-market, state-run economy to a non-subsidized, free-market economy.

"We believe it would simply be unwise to ignore this painful lesson and allow Vietnam to become a W.T.O. member prior to substantial progress on their part from a state-run economy to a much more open, market-driven economy," said Augustine Tantillo.

Administration officials argue otherwise, saying establishing normal trade relations with Vietnam would help promote market reforms.

Trade between Vietnam and the United States totaled nearly $8 billion last year.