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Vietnam Trade Pact Fails in US House Vote

Vietnam has expressed disappointment at the U.S. House of Representatives' failure Monday to approve permanent normalized trade status for Vietnam.

Hanoi was hoping Congress would pass the needed law to highlight Vietnam's position as a rising trade power, especially as it prepares to host a summit with President Bush and other Asia-Pacific leaders this week.

News of the measure's defeat in the lower chamber of the U.S. Congress was a setback for Vietnamese officials, who are proudly showcasing the openness of their booming economy ahead of Saturday and Sunday's summit of Asia-Pacific leaders.

Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Le Dung, spoke to VOA after the House of Representatives Monday - in a surprising vote - failed to grant Vietnam "Permanent Normal Trade Relations" status, or P.N.T.R.

"It is very regrettable that the U.S. House of Representatives has not yet approved the bill to grant the P.N.T.R. to Vietnam and that does not serve the interests and the aspirations of the two countries," he said.

He says Vietnam remains hopeful that lawmakers in President Bush's Republican Party will succeed in a new attempt to pass the law before Mr. Bush's arrival in Hanoi for the APEC summit of 21 Asia-Pacific leaders later this week.

Currently Congress has to vote each year on whether to confer normal trading status on Vietnam. Making that status permanent would, among other things, remove quotas that limit the amount of textiles that Vietnam can export into the U.S.

Lawmakers who voted down the measure cited concerns that a flood of cheap Vietnamese textile imports could cost their constituents business and jobs.

For the Vietnamese, news of the trade bill's defeat was tempered somewhat by an announcement from the Department of State, which on Monday said it had removed Vietnam from its list of nations that severely violate religious freedom. That list currently includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.

Foreign Ministry spokesman, Le Dung, says Vietnam welcomes the State Department decision as another sign that relations between the two countries - long characterized by post-war bitterness - are growing closer.

"That accurately reflects the reality in Vietnam and goes in accordance with the principles of the U.S.-Vietnam relations," he said. "And also that goes in accordance with the positive developments of the bilateral relations of the two countries over the past years."

The U.S. State Department official in charge of religious matters said Monday that Vietnam had made "significant improvements towards advancing religious freedom." He cited the release of several people imprisoned for their religious beliefs, the reopening of churches, and the passage of laws banning a long-standing practice of rounding up tens of thousands of people and forcing them to renounce their faith.