Vietnam a priority market for US firms

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Motorcyclists ride past a KFC restaurant in downtown Hanoi. More US companies and franchisers are seeking business opportunities in Vietnam.

Suresh Kumar thinks Vietnam and the US have yet to see the best of their investment and trade relationship.

Looking back on the past ten years, the US Assistant Secretary of Commerce said there had been a lot of progress in the "special" relationship.

When bilateral trade agreement between the two countries was established in 2001, trade was around US$2 billion per year only. Last year it had grown to $18.6 billion.

"But what is even more impressive is how much more we can do in the years to come," Kumar told local reporters during his first trip to Vietnam this week.

He said around one and a half year ago, President Obama announced the US National Export Initiative, which focuses on boosting trade with select priority markets. "Vietnam has been identified as one of the priority markets for bilateral trade," he said, noting that the US is now Vietnam's largest export market.

But even if the US positions Vietnam as a critical export market and encourages Vietnam to open its market for American products, that should not be seen as reflecting an intention to balance trade, he said.

The US has no intention to reduce imports from Vietnam either, he said. "Countries win when trade is encouraged."

Kumar, also the general director of the US and Foreign Commercial Service, a federal trade promotion agency, said the strength of the bilateral relationship is also reflected through the large US investment in Vietnam, which stands at $4.7 billion.

More than 500 US companies have a presence in Vietnam and many others are looking to invest here, he said.

The assistant secretary is set to lead a group of US companies to Ho Chi Minh City this December, seeking to partner with local firms. The mission will focus on franchising, where "there is a lot of demand," Kumar said, without disclosing names of the franchisers.

"We feel extremely good about the opportunities and the potential in Vietnam," he said.

US power producer AES Corp last week broke ground for the coal-fired Mong Duong 2 plant in Quang Ninh Province. The producer, a Fortune 200 global power company, has a 51 percent stake in the $2 billion plant, which is Vietnam's largest private sector power project so far.

Earlier this month the US-ASEAN Business Council led its largest-ever business mission, comprising 41 leading US companies on a three-day visit. Companies participating on the mission included Boeing, Ford Motor, General Electric, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Time Warner.

"The surge of interest we are seeing in Vietnam is unprecedented," Alexander Feldman of the council said in a statement. "Across all sectors, US businesses are looking at Vietnam and the other ASEAN nations and recognizing Southeast Asia, and Vietnam in particular, as the key growth market for the 21st century."

Kumar said as Vietnam plans to move to a more knowledge-based economy, the US looks forward to working with the country to help it realize its goal.

"US companies have the technologies, the products and the services Vietnam needs," he said, naming finance, energy, IT, infrastructure, education and healthcare among the sectors with excellent opportunities for growth.

He urged Vietnam to make rules transparent and easy for businesses, improve access to capital, and simplify regulatory process to facilitate investment.

The Asia Development Bank said in a report last week that foreign direct investment to Vietnam declined slightly to $5.3 billion in the first six months. However, the bank said a more stable domestic macroeconomic environment in 2012 should stimulate foreign investment.

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