Congress completes action on legislation normalizing trade relations with Vietnam
WASHINGTON (AP) – U.S.-Vietnamese relations moved to a new level Wednesday with Senate approval of an agreement normalizing trade between the two former enemies.
The Senate’s 88-12 vote ”represents an important step in the healing process,” said the Senate Finance Committee chairman, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., ”a step that has been a long time in coming.”
The House endorsed the measure last month, and President Bush said he will sign it. The trade agreement, negotiated by the Clinton White House last year, ”will provide American companies with access to a large and growing market, and, through the reforms it promotes, it will help create a more prosperous and engaged Vietnam,” Bush said in a statement after the Senate vote.
Under the agreement, Vietnam would benefit from the same low tariffs the United States sets for its other trading partners. In return, Vietnam is to reduce its tariffs, eliminate nontariff barriers, protect intellectual property rights and open its markets to American service and investment companies.
The United States and Vietnam had no formal relations and limited contacts in the two decades after U.S. troops left Vietnam in 1973. The first President Bush initiated cooperation in such areas as accounting for MIAs. In 1994, President Clinton lifted the trade embargo and the next year he established diplomatic relations. In 1998, he issued the first waiver making commercial deals with Vietnam eligible for U.S. government loans and credit guarantees.
But Vietnam has remained one of only six nations denied normal trade relations, subjecting Vietnamese goods to far higher tariffs. The other countries are Afghanistan, Cuba, North Korea, Laos and Yugoslavia.
Vietnam is the world’s 14th-most-populous nation, with 80 million people, but trade with the United States was only about $1.2 billion last year. Estimates are that Vietnam’s exports to the United States, mainly shrimp, coffee and light manufactured goods, could more than double with normal trade relations.
The vote on Vietnam followed congressional approval last month of a free-trade pact with Jordan. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, top Republican on the Finance Committee, said he hoped the Vietnam vote would give momentum to efforts to pass a bill this year giving the president authority to negotiate new multinational trade agreements.
Opposition to the deal came mainly from lawmakers who asserted that Vietnam has not fully cooperated in accounting for MIAs from the Vietnam War and should not be entitled to normal trade because of its poor human rights record.
”If those who want to normalize relations with Vietnam choose to ignore the numerous human rights violations of that country, is that right?” asked Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H.
Concerns were also raised by Mississippi Delta senators, who said the agreement lacked protections for the catfish industry. Vietnamese imports, said Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., are ”absolutely destroying our domestic catfish industry.”
Leading the effort to normalize ties with Vietnam were three senators who served in the Vietnam War: Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and John McCain, R-Ariz., a former prisoner of war.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson, who spent his tenure in Hanoi shepherding the trade agreement, called the vote ”absolutely outstanding,” and said it represented a vote of confidence in the relationship between the two former enemies.
Peterson was shot down while on a bombing mission over Vietnam and held as a prisoner of war for six years. He said Wednesday the agreement would improve the stability of the entire region as well as providing economic opportunity.
Because Vietnam is a communist state, its normal trade status will still be subject to annual review, requiring the president to waive the requirement that Vietnam allow free emigration.
For the past two decades, the president has also had to grant annual waivers so China could enjoy normal trade relations. China, however, is moving to permanent normal trade status with the decision last month by the World Trade Organization to accept China as a member.
Vietnam’s prime minister initiated the ratification process in Vietnam by sending the trade agreement to President Tran Duc Long.
On the Net:
Information on the trade agreement bill, H.J. Res. 51 can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov/
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