TRADING OPINIONS: VIETNAM: WHAT'S NEXT?

TRADING OPINIONS: VIETNAM: WHAT'S NEXT?

Last year, President Clinton made an emotional trip of reconciliation to Vietnam. Together with the signing of a bilateral trade agreement and further signals towards economic reform in Vietnam, the stage seemed set for a new chapter in U.S.-Vietnam relations. But the Bush Administration has seemed slower to turn the page. Despite strong bipartisan support to pass the trade agreement, it has not yet been submitted to the Congress by the new Administration, nor has a schedule been announced for doing so. Indeed, in a congressional hearing last week, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick suggested that the Vietnamese ought to get on with further economic reforms without the new trade agreement, and he issued sharp criticism of continuing human rights violations against religious and ethnic minorities in Vietnam.

No doubt the Vietnamese government can and must do more to further the process of economic reform, and they came only slowly to the view that they ought to conclude last year's bilateral trade agreement. More, Zoellick's deep concern with regard to the human rights situation is certainly broadly shared in the Congress.Still, it seems a foregone conclusion that the trade agreement will eventually be submitted by the Administration and approved by the Congress. Zoellick, however, has turned aside Congressional requests for the early consideration of the Vietnam trade agreement and a free trade agreement with Jordan, also negotiated by President Clinton. Perhaps the Administration may still hope to use Vietnam and Jordan as leverage to win concessions from Democrats on labor and environment provisions in new trade negotiating authority.

Whether that happens or not, movement forward on trade relations with Vietnam has slowed. Further, the consideration of the Vietnam agreement in the broader context of the debate on trade and labor, also puts attention on labor issues in Vietnam.

In this regard, influential Democrats, including Congressman Sandy Levin and Senator Max Baucus, have been interested in whether an expected new textile agreement with Vietnam can be used as an incentive for further labor law reforms. Here they have in mind the precedent of a textile agreement with Cambodia that provides for increased U.S. market access for Cambodian textiles, in exchange for commitments to improve the labor rights situation in Cambodia.

See Andrew James Samet, page 2