WASHINGTON – The Bush administration expressed optimism Monday that a recently completed trade agreement with Vietnam can be signed by early June and supporting legislation can win congressional approval this summer.
Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Karan Bhatia said the target date was for both countries to sign the agreement in early June in Ho Chi Minh City at the same time that Vietnam is serving as host for a meeting of trade ministers from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. The APEC meeting is scheduled for June 1-2.
Bhatia said both countries were working to translate the "agreement in principle" that was announced earlier this month into a completed deal.
"What we have got to do is make sure we have got all of these nuts and bolts nailed down and that is what we are trying very hard to do right now," he said.
Negotiators from both countries reached a tentative deal on May 14 on the trade barriers to U.S. products that Vietnam would remove as part of the requirements it must meet to join the 149-nation World Trade Organization.
In addition, Congress must pass legislation granting Vietnam "permanent normal trading relations" with the U.S., a status that would guarantee Vietnam gets the same low tariff privileges as other WTO members.
That would end the annual congressional review Vietnam and other communist and former communist countries that are not WTO members must go through to keep getting normal tariffs on goods shipped to the United States.
Bhatia expressed confidence that the administration would win the congressional vote even though U.S. textile groups have strongly opposed the deal, fearing it will mean a flood of cheap clothing coming in from Vietnam.
The American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition and other textile groups are warning lawmakers that allowing Vietnam into the WTO will repeat the mistakes made when China was allowed entry into the WTO in December 2001.
But Bhatia rejected the textile industry complaints, contending the administration negotiated tough restrictions to protect the U.S. textile industry, including an agreement by Vietnam's government that it will stop all WTO-illegal subsidies as soon as it gains membership.
Vietnam is hoping to become a WTO member before the fall summit of APEC leaders that President Bush is expected to attend.
Bhatia spoke to reporters in advance of a two-week trip to Asia, with stops planned in Taiwan, where he will be the highest ranking U.S. official to visit the country in six years, and in India as well as the APEC meeting in Vietnam.
Removing trade barriers will be the topic of discussion in both Taiwan and India.
Bhatia's trip was seen as part of the administration's continued effort to increase America's economic presence in fast-growing Asian countries to keep from losing U.S. export sales to China.
The Bush administration plans to start free trade talks with South Korea and Malaysia in early June, Bhatia said.
The goal is to conclude those discussions so Congress can approve them next year, before the president loses his authority to negotiate trade agreements under an expedited process that requires the House and Senate to vote yes or no without adding amendments.