Once bitter foes, US and Vietnam sign trade pact

THE United States and Vietnam – once bitter enemies on the battlefield – have taken another major stride in their relations with the signing of a trade and investment pact.

The signing preceded a meeting yesterday between US President George W. Bush and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Minh Triet.

Mr Triet, whose visit is the first by a Vietnamese head of state to the US since the end of the war over 30 years ago, told an audience of businessmen that it was “passe” to associate his country with conflict.

Business is the order of the day, and “we’ll widely open our arms to welcome you”, he said in his luncheon speech to the US Chamber of Commerce and US-Asean Business Council here on Thursday.

Two-way trade is currently worth US$9.7 billion (S$15 billion). The US is the biggest export market for Vietnam, but is its 11th largest foreign investor, and the Vietnamese hope to improve on that.

The Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (Tifa) signed by Mr Triet and Deputy US Trade Representative Karan Bhatia on Thursday is designed to open more markets and streamline business dealings. It is also seen as paving the way for a free trade pact with Vietnam.

Ms Virginia Foote, president of the US-Vietnam Trade Council, told The Straits Times: “The aim now is to prepare for the broader objective of concluding an FTA down the road. That appears to be the goal of this administration.”

It has been a productive trip thus far for the Vietnamese delegation, which arrived on Monday.

He signed a Memorandum Of Understanding between the New York and Ho Chi Minh stock exchanges. Major business deals were also negotiated in the energy, telecommunications, information technology and financial services sectors.

Aircraft maker Boeing has also been in talks to sell 787 long-haul jets to Vietnam Airlines, which would allow the state-run carrier to modernise its fleet and make non-stop flights to the United States.

The only glitch was the stinging criticism Mr Triet faced on Thursday from US lawmakers, who warned that ties would deteriorate unless Hanoi improved its human rights record.

There have been concerns over a series of arrests and trials of dissidents in the communist country. Hanoi released two prominent pro-democracy activists shortly before the trip to ease concerns.

But that did little to assuage Capitol Hill. Said Republican Ed Royce: “We’ve got to see a stop to this conduct if this relationship is going to improve.”

But observers believe that despite such concerns, US-Vietnam relations have now entered a higher level, driven by strategic imperatives and trade.

Mr Matthew Daley, president of the US-Asean Business Council, told The Straits Times: “Both countries are committed to a long-term process of improving the relationship. Trade is the key driver in this process.”

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