- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2005

A U.S. senator is introducing legislation to lower trade barriers for some of the world’s poorest nations, including two that were severely damaged by an Indian Ocean tsunami last month.

But the product barrier that hard-hit Sri Lankamost needs to be eased is for politically sensitive apparel, making tsunami-related trade concessions troublesome for many in Congress.

Other nations battered by the natural disaster are lobbying the Bush administration and Congress for trade preferences, but they face a variety of obstacles, including U.S. industries that are hard-pressed by foreign competition and conflicting trade initiatives.

Sen. Gordon H. Smith, Oregon Republican, this week is proposing U.S. trade preference for 15 countries, including Sri Lanka and Maldives — both devastated by the Dec. 26 tsunami.

“Whether it is the result of tsunami devastation or general economic adversity, the poor and disadvantaged of the world must know the United States is in their corner,” Mr. Smith said.

The bill originally was touted last year as a way to help the world’s poorest countries, especially those that compete with China for a share of the U.S. apparel market. Sri Lanka was not part of the original proposal but was added after the tsunami as a way to help the country and build support for the legislation.

Nothing has been formally introduced in the House.

“We are looking at all available options, including temporary tariff reductions, to further assist the people of tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka as they move forward in the rebuilding of their country’s infrastructure and economy,” said Rep. Jerry Weller, Illinois Republican and co-chairman of the Sri Lanka Congressional Caucus.

Thailand, another of the 12 countries hit by the tsunami, also has been pressing the administration for trade concessions on a specific list of products, including shrimp.

Shrimp is one of the country’s top exports, but American fishermen have accused the country of unfairly selling their exports below cost in the United States, and the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) recently slapped duties on Thai shrimp imports.

The USITC said it would review the duties in light of the tsunami, although the process can take several months. Meanwhile, Thailand is negotiating a free-trade agreement with the United States, a difficult give-and-take process that complicates any other trade-related moves.

The Bush administration said it has consulted with several countries in recent days and would look to develop proposals that build on available trade tools and initiatives.

“Trade will be an important part of the U.S. post-tsunami reconstruction effort,” said Neena Moorjani, spokeswoman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

Despite pressure to help, U.S. industry groups are skeptical of concessions.

“You’d be concentrating the cost of providing relief … on already heavily damaged industry rather than the country as a whole,” said Lloyd Wood, spokesman for the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, which is working to shield domestic textile and apparel companies from foreign competition.

U.S. shrimpers, who successfully lobbied for tariffs on shrimp from Thailand, India and other nations, also do not want to bear the brunt of any trade concessions. The Southern Shrimp Alliance, a trade group, instead called on importers to pay higher prices to help Indian Ocean exporters.

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