- The Washington Times - Friday, September 7, 2001

ASSOCIATED PRESS — The House approved normal trade relations with Vietnam yesterday, a step expected to substantially boost commerce and contacts with the former enemy.

The voice vote endorsed a trade agreement reached between Vietnam and the Clinton administration in July 2000 and sent to Congress by the Bush White House in June. It still requires a Senate vote.

The agreement would give Vietnam access to the same low tariffs enjoyed by other U.S. trading partners. In exchange, the Hanoi government would commit to reducing tariffs, eliminating non-tariff barriers, protecting intellectual property rights and opening its markets to American service and investment companies.

Vietnam's exports to the United States, mainly textiles and light manufactured goods, could more than double with the agreement, raising the nation's living standards, said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, a California Republican.

"A strong Vietnam matters to America," he said. "History has proved that we pay a heavy price for instability in Southeast Asia."

The nation of 80 million is the world's 13th largest, but trade with the United States last year came to only about $1.2 billion.

Vietnam is one of only six nations in the world denied normal trade relations, meaning its goods are subject to much higher tariffs. Others are Afghanistan, Cuba, North Korea, Laos and Yugoslavia.

For Vietnam, still a communist state, approval of normal trade relations would give it the same status applied to China the past two decades: The president must issue annual waivers for requirements that it is complying with freedom of emigration.

China is to get permanent trade status when it joins the World Trade Organization, probably later this year.

The U.S. military withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, but it was not until 1994, after years of contention over U.S. prisoners of war and missing in action, that President Clinton lifted the trade embargo. He established diplomatic relations in 1995. In 1998, he issued the first waiver making commercial deals with Vietnam eligible for U.S. government loans and credit guarantees.

That waiver has been renewed annually since then, the last time by President Bush in June.

The administration said in a statement that the bilateral trade agreement "binds Vietnam to an unprecedented array of reforms" and would help with improving human rights and accounting for American MIAs.

Opponents of the trade agreement argued that Vietnam persecutes its citizens and has not done enough to account for MIAs. Several lawmakers from the South expressed concerns about imports of Vietnamese catfish.

The trade deal, said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, shows why "the dictators of the world do not pay attention to us and think that we are being either frivolous or lying about our commitment to human rights."

The House yesterday also approved, 410-1, a measure barring U.S. non-humanitarian aid to Vietnam unless the president certifies that Vietnam has made progress in such human rights areas as releasing political and religious prisoners. The measure authorizes funds for groups promoting democracy in Vietnam.

The Senate Finance Committee approved the trade agreement in July. Vietnam's prime minister initiated the ratification process in Vietnam last June by sending the trade agreement to President Tran Duc Long.

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