By  on June 25, 2007

WASHINGTON — President Bush, in his first meeting with Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet, touted strong bilateral trade ties with the Communist country, but gave no indication whether the two leaders discussed an apparel import monitoring program that is aggravating U.S. apparel importers.

The two met at the White House on Friday as hundreds of protestors held a rally just outside the gates, denouncing human rights abuses in Vietnam.

Bush touted the signing of a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with the Southeast Asian nation that can serve as a blueprint for potential free trade negotiations, saying the two countries have "good economic relations," in remarks released by the White House.

Triet said, "We have also discussed specific measures of how to advance further our relations in a wide range of areas, be it political, economic, trade, investment, education, training or humanitarian. And in short, our relations are broadened and deepened…in a sustainable and effective manner."

U.S. apparel importers had pressed the Vietnamese president on Tuesday to raise concerns about the monitoring program the Bush administration implemented in January that could lead to higher duties on apparel imports from that country.

The creation of the monitoring program was the outgrowth of a political bargain struck between the administration and two textile-state senators, Elizabeth Dole (R., N.C.) and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), last year to gain their support for permanent normal trade relations status for Vietnam, which became a member of the World Trade Organization.

U.S. textile producers fought for the monitoring program and the possibility of the U.S. self-initiating antidumping cases because they fear a wave of apparel imports from Vietnam now that quotas have been lifted.

It could not be learned whether Triet discussed the program with Bush, trade officials or members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), with whom he met on Thursday.

Laura Jones, executive director of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, who was among a group of 12 apparel importers who met with Triet on Tuesday, said Friday she had not been briefed on Triet's meetings in Washington."He assured us he would bring it up, though, and I'm not sure substantively we were expecting a public statement on it," Jones said.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Commerce Department did not respond to inquiries about Triet or the monitoring program.

Some trade veterans maintain Bush will not want to jeopardize what is left of his trade agenda despite the increasing pressure.

"[Triet] may have some clout, but not enough to reverse the [monitoring program]," said Gary Hufbauer, senior fellow at Peterson Institute for International Economics. "This decision was clearly a bone to the domestic industry and the President would not want to do something to jeopardize his prospects of getting free-trade agreements with Peru and Panama, and possibly South Korea and Colombia, ratified by Congress."

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