WASHINGTON — President Obama met in the Oval Office Tuesday with the head of Vietnam’s Communist Party, Gen. Sec. Nguyen Phu Trong, where the two talked trade as the latest import figures showed that the country’s apparel imports to the U.S. shot up 19 percent in May.

The two leaders discussed the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which are said to be wrapping up. If successful, the talks would create a trade pact encompassing nearly 40 percent of global gross domestic product.

“We discussed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, and the enormous potential of a high-standards trade agreement that raises labor standards, raises environmental standards, and could potentially create significant job growth and prosperity for both the Vietnamese and the American people,” Obama said.

Trong said the two leaders had a “constructive and candid” discussion about differences and “the way forward, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as the human rights issue.”

Among the several outstanding issues are textiles and apparel rules of origin and tariff phaseout schedules, according to industry officials.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s office said the U.S. will host a TPP ministerial in Maui July 28 to 31, which will be preceded by a TPP chief negotiator’s meeting July 24 to 27.

“Since they last met in May, trade ministers from the 12  TPP countries have been working continuously,” the USTR office said. “As a result, we have made considerable progress in closing gaps on remaining issues, and we continue to work intensively to address specific issues bilaterally. The upcoming ministerial provides an important opportunity to build on this progress as we work to conclude the negotiation.”

Nate Herman, vice president of international trade at the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said the meeting between Obama and Trong was an important precursor to a formal TPP ministerial and that the goal is to try to close all bilateral issue so trade ministers can reach a deal in Hawaii at the end of the month.

The Oval Office meeting, he said, “certainly shows the importance of TPP to both countries, and obviously the strategic relationship between the two countries.”

Vietnam is the second-largest apparel supplier to the U.S. behind China. Apparel shipments from Vietnam to the U.S. rose to 248 million square meter equivalents, giving the country the biggest gain in apparel shipments to the U.S. for the month.

Overall imports of apparel and textiles to the U.S. rose 11.7 percent in May, with China, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh all posting double-digit increases, the U.S. Commerce Department’s trade report showed Tuesday. Combined apparel and textile imports from the world to the U.S. increased to 5.3 billion SME in May compared with a year earlier. Apparel imports were up 6.7 percent to 2 billion SME, while textile imports gained 14.9 percent to 3.3 billion SME.

“People have been looking at Vietnam as a first step in any China-plus-one strategy,” Herman said. “It’s the first place companies go to when they decide to take production out of China.”

Julia Hughes, president at the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, said companies are sourcing from Vietnam because it “makes good business sense” and will continue to do so. She said companies are not placing more business there in anticipation of TPP, but since the country continues to gain market share in the U.S., it “suggests that it is an opportunity for imports from Vietnam to grow even more if we have a good TPP agreement, which means one that is flexible enough to adapt to changing sourcing patterns.”

China, which is the number-one supplier to the U.S. and not a party to the TPP talks, posted a 14.5 percent increase in combined imports to 2.6 billion SME.

“When China is up 5 percent, that is a lot considering it controls over 40 percent of the U.S. apparel import market,” Hughes said, adding that U.S. government data show China’s share of the U.S. apparel import market has grown to 41.9 percent in the past 12 months ending May.

Other Asian suppliers, such as Bangladesh and Cambodia, both of which have been undergoing reforms in their garment industries due to factory tragedies and workers’ rights issues, respectively, also grew. Apparel imports from Bangladesh increased 11.7 percent to 142 million SME, while apparel imports from Cambodia grew 12 percent to 71 million SME.

The overall U.S. trade deficit widened in May to $41.9 billion from $40.7 billion in April.

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