US presses Vietnam ahead of ASEAN meeting

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A top US trade official on Tuesday said he urged Vietnam to undo a number of trade-restrictive policies aimed at curbing inflation and reducing the country's current account deficit.

"We appreciate that they're trying to stabilize their macroeconomy, but the point that we made in our meetings was we should work together to find a less trade-restrictive way to do so," Deputy US Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis told Reuters in a phone interview from Hanoi.

While no firm commitments were made, "the Vietnamese were very open to our concerns and I think want to get together further to ... see if there's anything they can do to address them," Marantis said after two days of talks with top Vietnamese officials.

Marantis said Vietnam's policies were hurting US agricultural, industrial and services exporters, but emphasized talks on the issues were separate from the broader negotiations on a proposed TransPacific Partnership (TPP) pact.

The two former war enemies are negotiating that regional free trade agreement with seven other countries: Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Chile and Peru.

The group's goal is to have the "broad outlines" of the deal completed by November, when President Barack Obama hosts 20 other regional leaders in Honolulu for the annual summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

"Vietnam is going to pose challenges in some areas that we just need to really commit ourselves to engaging on a step-by-step basis," Marantis said.

Textiles is "a great example" because Vietnam wants much more access to the US market, but that's a very politically sensitive issue for Washington, he said.

Marantis said he also warned Vietnam the United States would be pressing in the TPP pact for tough rules on "state-owned enterprises" (SOEs) that account for a large share of the country's economy.

From Vietnam, Marantis was headed to Manado, Indonesia, for a meeting of trade ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

He said his main message was "just underscoring the importance that we attach to our trade relationship with our ASEAN and our Asian-Pacific trading partners."

TPP countries Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia are also members of ASEAN, a fast-growing region which many see as key as to future US economic prosperity. The TPP talks are part of a US effort to ensure it remains engaged in the region as China increases its economic might.

The United States is working on a number of trade issues with ASEAN as a whole in areas ranging from cloud computing to health care to trade facilitation, Marantis said.

Bilaterally, the United States and Philippines are in talks on trade facilitation agreement to speed the flow of goods across their borders, Marantis said.

That would be the first such pact between the United States and an ASEAN country, he said.

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