Vietnam a potential hot market

July 26, 2006

July 24, 2006, 10:41PM

Area businesses, many immigrants differ on support for WTO status

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Exports of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, cattle and wine could soar if Vietnam joins the World Trade Organization, Karen Bhatia, the deputy U.S. trade representative, recently told the Senate Committee on Finance.

More than three decades after the U.S. withdrew from the bloody war in the communist-run Southeast Asian nation, Congress is considering granting Vietnam permanent normal trade relations status — a move that will help clear the path for the country to join the World Trade Organization.

The effort pleases officials at several Houston-based businesses but disappoints some Vietnamese immigrants in the Bayou City, the home of the nation’s largest Vietnamese community outside of California.

Supporters of the nation’s bid to join the global group are predicting increased sales for large companies and farmers in both countries, from Houston to Ho Chi Minh City and Hartford, Conn., to Hanoi.

Nations want to join the World Trade Organization because membership confers a special status and lets other nations know that they adhere to certain standards and are less risky to trade with, said Sheng Zeng, who is in charge of business development for the Asia Pacific region for Shaw Stone & Webster, a Houston-based division of Baton Rouge’s Shaw Group.

“The Vietnamese market is a hot market right now — one of the best emerging markets in the world,” said Andrew Tran, president of Asia Link, which helps facilitate corporate investment in Asia. “Maybe with the entrance of the WTO and agreement with the U.S., in five more years it will be a much different Vietnam, a much better Vietnam.”

Corporate benefits

He may be right, if China’s experience is any indication.U.S. agricultural exports to China soared to $5.2 billion in 2005 from $1.9 billion in 2001, when the nation joined the World Trade Organization, according to the Agricultural Coalition for U.S.-Vietnam Trade, and supporters expect similar increases if Vietnam joins the global trade organization.

“This legislation represents another milestone in a process that began over 15 years ago, when the United States restored diplomatic relations with Vietnam,” Bhatia told Senate members. “We believe that WTO accession for Vietnam will benefit the United States economically, will promote reform in Vietnam, and will support broader American interests in Vietnam and in Southeast Asia as a whole.”

Energy companies, retailers and technology firms were some of the 135 U.S. businesses, associations and farm groups that recently signed a letter urging Congress to grant the nation permanent normal trade relations, stating that the nation is “one of the fastest growing economies in the world and is the fastest growing market for U.S. products in Asia.”

ConocoPhillips, Chevron and BP America are some of the companies that support the move.

“We believe these actions will further strengthen the excellent relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam and will provide benefits for U.S. companies and workers,” said a spokesperson for ConocoPhillips, which has invested more than $1 billion in Vietnam in the past decade.

Immigrants’ hesitation

But textile groups such as the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, National Council of Textile Organizations and National Textile Association urge Congress to ensure there are textile safeguards before endorsing Vietnam’s bid to join the WTO. The textile industry faces competition from clothing made by low-paid Vietnamese workers if import quotas are dropped.In Houston’s new Chinatown district, some Vietnamese immigrants are quietly grumbling that their homeland should not be allowed to join the international organization until they stop committing what they view as human rights violations.

“There’s a group of us a while ago who lobbied against Vietnam joining the WTO unless they stop repression of religious freedom and freedom of speech,” said Binh Nguyen, a community activist and news producer for the Saigon Broadcasting Television Network in Houston.

More than 55,000 Vietnamese immigrants live in Houston, although leaders believe the figures are closer to 80,000. Vietnamese restaurants, coffee shops and grocery stores line Bellaire Boulevard, catering to the burgeoning community.

Immigrants began to settle here because the hot weather was reminiscent of Vietnam’s climate, and because they could work as shrimpers, as many did in their native land, said Tran, who is also president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce.

“Because of the background they have, it’s very, very hard for them to accept anything that enhances the strength of the Vietnamese government,” said Tran Van Hien, director of Vietnam Programs at the University of Houston’s Clear Lake campus. “It makes it difficult for them to accept a new Vietnam.”

jenalia.moreno@chron.com

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