- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Vietnam is moving closer to joining the World Trade Organization after negotiations with the U.S. this week, though the sides did not reach a final agreement and Congress would still have to approve the communist country’s membership.

The U.S. has not announced a formal timetable to wrap up its talks with Vietnam, but the Bush administration yesterday issued an upbeat assessment of negotiations in Hanoi.

“We were pleased with our progress and believe the meetings this week have injected new momentum and energy into the negotiations,” said Dorothy Dwoskin, assistant U.S. trade representative for WTO and multilateral affairs.

Vietnam’s government is pushing to conclude membership talks ahead of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit it is hosting in June. Vietnamese Trade Minister Truong Dinh Tuyen said he hoped to finish negotiations during the next round of talks, to be held as soon as April, Bloomberg News reported.

Countries aspiring to join WTO must reach terms with each of the body’s 149 members, though the biggest economies — including the U.S. and 25-nation European Union — typically set the most rigorous terms.

Vietnam, which applied for membership in 1995 and has since reached agreements with Japan, China and Europe, still is in talks with the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.

Ms. Dwoskin highlighted copyright and patent protection, government subsidies and the ability of U.S. companies to sell their products in Vietnam as outstanding issues.

Congress would have to tacitly approve Vietnam’s WTO terms by granting permanent normal trade relations. The country now is denied such status under a 1974 law, known as Jackson-Vanik for its congressional sponsors, that links trade to freedom of emigration.

Vietnam shipped $6 billion in goods to the U.S. through November, making it the world’s 36th-biggest exporter to the U.S. Its major export is apparel, a politically sensitive product.

The country’s human rights record, including religious persecution and jailing of democracy advocates, also is a cause for concern.

“Vietnam is riddled with human rights abuses,” said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican. Mr. Smith, who visited Vietnam in December, said the Bush administration may encounter more opposition to Vietnam’s WTO membership than it expects.

Vietnam and the U.S., which fought a war from the mid-1960s until 1973, steadily repaired relations in the 1990s, and in 2001 Congress approved a bilateral trade agreement.

Vietnam has implemented a series of market-oriented reforms in recent years and is now on a faster track to WTO membership than its one-time Cold War patron, Russia.

Russia applied for WTO membership in 1993.

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