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Sunday March 12, 2006

US business delegation backs Vietnam's WTO accession bid


HANOI (AP) - A major U.S. trade delegation, including some of America's top Fortune 500 companies, announced Saturday its support for Vietnam's bid to join the World Trade Organization this year but warned that political hurdles remain. 

"We'd like to see Vietnam's WTO accession finalized by the end of the year, preferably by the end of November. That's a pretty vigorous timetable,'' said Matthew Daley, head of the US-ASEAN Business Council, which led a trade mission representing 21 major U.S. corporations including Boeing Co., Citigroup Inc., and General Electric Co. to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. 

Vietnam, which is currently negotiating membership to the WTO, is trying to finalize bilateral agreements with the United States before the start of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Hanoi in November.  

Both governments have said they are hopeful of concluding talks before the arrival of U.S. President George W. Bush and other world leaders. 

Once the bilateral negotiations on WTO are completed, the U.S. Congress would need to approve permanent normal trading relations with Vietnam - which would eliminate the Congressional review that Hanoi undergoes every two years. But Daley warned that Hanoi needs to be ready for politically sensitive topics because "almost anything can come up in the PNTR vote.'' 

PNTR, also known as most-favored nation status, is permanent trading rights with the U.S., normally granted to fellow members in the WTO. 

"There will be questions of religious freedom, there will be questions of democracy, there will be questions of human rights ... Any number of these things could come up. I think it's going to be important for Vietnam and the United States to be in a position to address those in straightforward manner,'' he said. 

However, Daley said it's clear that American companies looking to diversify investments in Asia are taking a hard look at what Vietnam has to offer. 

"The rate of change in Vietnam is accelerating and the interest in Vietnam is accelerating,'' he said. 

Bilateral U.S.-Vietnam trade has boomed since the historic trade agreement between the two countries was passed in 2001. Last year, two-way trade topped US$7.5 billion. 

According to recent figures, U.S. companies are the top foreign investors in Vietnam. Delegation members were scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Phan Van Khai later in the day.  

They have already met with Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan and other senior officials from the ministries of foreign affairs, planning and investment, finance and trade.

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