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U.S. trade representative reports agreement with Vietnam is close

SHARE U.S. trade representative reports agreement with Vietnam is close

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States is close to reaching a landmark trade agreement with Vietnam, but five days of talks have yet to resolve all the outstanding issues, the Clinton administration said Monday.

"We are very close, but we do not have agreement yet," U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky told reporters. "We will see if Vietnam is willing to make the political commitment to move forward."

Barshefsky and other U.S. officials have been meeting with a delegation led by Vietnam's Trade Minister Vu Khoan since last Thursday in an effort to complete an agreement that was announced in principle a year ago.

Since that time, Vietnam has sought to withdraw some of the trade concessions it had made to gain access to the U.S. market. Analysts said that reflected the intense debate raging inside the country between reformers and conservatives in Vietnam's government over whether to commit the country to a free-market economy.

American officials have repeatedly said they are unwilling to renegotiate the entire deal.

The Clinton administration has also tried to use China, an economic rival to Vietnam, as a way to spur the Vietnamese government to finally close the agreement with the United States.

The administration reached a landmark deal to normalize trade relations with China last November, and the House recently approved legislation needed to end the annual congressional review of China's trade status.

The World Bank has estimated that Vietnam could see its exports increase by $800 million annually by striking a trade agreement with the United States, which would lower high U.S. tariffs that average around 40 percent.

A U.S.-Vietnam trade agreement could also spur badly needed foreign investment into Vietnam by encouraging foreign companies to locate plants there to take advantage of increased export opportunities to the United States.

Vietnam has been struggling economically — its total economic output is just half of what it was five years ago. Foreign investment has fallen by 85 percent since a peak of $8 billion in 1996 as investors have grown skeptical about the speed with which the Communist government is willing to make economic changes.

The commitments Vietnam must make as part of the trade agreement include removing barriers that protect its inefficient state-run enterprises.

U.S. officials were unwilling to discuss what sticking points remain, but Barshefsky said that the marathon discussions were producing results.

The talks in Washington were originally scheduled to last only until Thursday and Friday but they went through the weekend and continued Monday. Barshefsky said meetings have also been scheduled for Tuesday.

"I have spent considerable time today with my counterpart," Barshefsky told reporters, referring to Khoan. "We are getting closer . . . but we are not quite there yet."