WASHINGTON — The Sri Lankan minister for trade and development pressed U.S. officials on Thursday for assistance in establishing a unilateral trade preference program for his country.

The request from the minister came on a day the U.S. and Sri Lanka adopted a joint action plan to help boost bilateral trade and investment, and encourage progress in Sri Lanka as its government undergoes a transition to democracy.

“The main theme of my remarks today is asking for more market access [to the U.S.],” said Malik Samarawickrama, the Sri Lankan minister of development strategies and international trade. “Increased market access for Sri Lanka is crucial for building a more prosperous, stable and peaceful Sri Lanka. I hope our deliberation today yields concrete outcomes which give our exports increased access to the U.S. market.”

Samarawickrama asked U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman for assistance in working with Congress to establish a preferential trade program for Sri Lanka similar to the HOPE program the U.S. has with Haiti and the African Growth & Opportunity Act it has with sub-Saharan African countries.

He also proposed the development and expansion of economic industrial zones in Sri Lanka, as well as the establishment of a working group to consider its eligibility in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

He said securing such a program with the U.S. is an “ immediate priority” and would be a “jewel in the crown” of the bilateral trade relationship the country has with the U.S.

Samarawickrama made his remarks at the top of the 12th U.S.-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Framework council meeting here, also attended by Froman and United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power.

Sri Lanka is a small apparel and textiles supplier to the U.S. The country shipped 500 million square meter equivalents, valued at about $2 billion, to the U.S. for the year ending Feb. 28. That puts its import volume ahead of several countries with which the U.S. has either a trade agreement or preference programs, including Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Morocco, Haiti, Peru and Bahrain.

“I understand the Sri Lankan government has suggested some specific initiatives for collaboration under the joint action plan and we’ll look forward to discussing those and other ideas that develop  in implementing the plan,” Froman said.

Froman called adoption of the joint action plan a “watershed moment in our bilateral relationship.”

“Our countries already have a solid economic relationship. For example, the Sri Lankan garment industry exports more product to the U.S. than to any other market in the world,” Froman said. “We all agree that our economic relationship has far greater potential. Today, we are demonstrating  that trade and investment policy based on respect for workers and the environment is the right thing to do, morally and economically.”

The joint action plan set out broad goals over five years, including improving the competitiveness of Sri Lanka’s exports, developing new markets and “greater utilization of U.S. tariff preference programs,” such as the existing Generalized System of Preferences. The plan also listed as objectives strengthening worker rights in Sri Lanka and promoting “ethical and environmentally sustainable manufacturing practices, especially in Sri Lanka’s (ready-made garment) sector.”

“The United States will seek to leverage our assistance this year to further support broad-based economic growth [in Sri Lanka],” Power said. “Unfortunately, achieving the socioeconomic growth that they want right now is probably going to take a little more time than any of us would like, given the legacy of war, the corruption, the economic mismanagement of recent years and some of the global economic dynamics.

“But the joint action plan being adopted today will help make this happen,” Powers added. “It will expand trade, encourage foreign investment and spur growth, and in so doing it will help boost employment, income and living standards.”