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March 13, 2003

Vietnam terms US bill "interference" into internal affairs

(BBC News) - The spokesperson of the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ms Phan Thuy Thanh, on 12 March replied to Vietnam News Agency and Tuoi Tre the Youth Newspaper correspondents' questions about Vietnam's reaction to Bill HR 1019, presented to the US House of Representatives on 27 February by Mr Royce and Ms Lofgren. She stated that the bill is an erroneous assessment of Vietnam's situation. In Vietnam, citizens' fundamental rights, including freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and the right to receive information are stated clearly in the Constitution. More than ever, the Vietnamese people are taking an active role in the political, economic, and social life of the country. They are provided with sufficient information and entitled to comment on all important national matters. Freedom of information in Vietnam is evident in the number of newspapers and the diversification of means of communication in Vietnam in recent years. Vietnam now has 486 news and press agencies turning out more than 600 publications.

More than 550m copies of these publications are printed annually.

The Voice of Vietnam VOV and the Vietnam Television have both increased the amount of broadcasting time, transmitting their programmes to all localities throughout the country, including remote areas and isolated islands. More than 80 per cent of Vietnamese households have access to the VOV broadcasts and 70 per cent have access to the Vietnam Television programmes. In addition, all provinces and cities have their own local radio and television stations and the number of hours are on the rise. The Vietnamese people are also provided with favourable conditions to access information via the Internet.

In light of that real situation, the presentation of the bill is an interference by the United States in Vietnam's internal affairs. The bill is a step backwards in the growing relationship between Vietnam and the United States. We demand the US House of Representatives' Committee for International Relations annul the bill.
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Good Morning, Vietnam: Investors Are Again Hopeful, if Impatient

By Reginald Chua and Margot Cohen

HANOI, Vietnam (The Wall Street Journal) - Don't rush us.

That is the message from Vietnam's leadership about the pace of the overhaul of its state-dominated economy. "I hope that you would understand that our country has recently emerged from war and a centrally planned economy," Prime Minister Phan Van Khai said in a rare interview. "Therefore we have to take it step by step. Otherwise, it would lead to collapse if we go too fast."

It is hardly a new message. The country's Communist government has regularly stressed the need to temper economic liberalization, even in the face of falling foreign investment and calls for faster change. That sometimes-tepid commitment has frustrated investors over the years, and is reflected in the fact that the dollar value of approved foreign investment is now less than a third of its 1996 peak.

But Hanoi has also taken some key steps in the past three years to open up its economy. It has enacted laws and regulations to allow greater scope for domestic private enterprise, with a resulting boom in new companies being formed. It has streamlined and decentralized a complex and cumbersome system of foreign-investment approvals. And in July 2000, it signed a landmark trade agreement with the U.S., which analysts say should be a catalyst for more and faster change. The pact, which came into effect in December 2001, led to a more than doubling of Vietnamese exports to the U.S. last year, to nearly $2.4 billion.

Indeed, optimism among foreign investors about the country's prospects seems to have returned for the first time since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. But investors also cite a litany of continuing problems -- among them a tangle of confusing and contradictory laws, widespread corruption, and frequently changing regulations -- that the government needs to address soon if it wants to keep drawing in desperately needed foreign money and expertise.

Most recently, Hanoi's plan to sharply raise taxes and import tariffs on auto parts starting April 1 has galvanized high-level lobbying efforts by American, European and Japanese officials and elicited warnings that unless Hanoi reconsiders, the dispute could sour Vietnam's bid to join the World Trade Organization by 2005. The measures, intended to boost purchases of locally made parts, were crafted with scant industry consultation, and auto makers say the levies could halve their sales here and force them to close. Sales in Vietnam's fledgling auto industry totaled just 26,872 vehicles last year, but 11 foreign car makers have set up local operations, including Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG.

The 69-year-old Mr. Khai, a Soviet-trained technocrat who once managed Ho Chi Minh City, acknowledged some of the complaints, including the need to further simplify investment procedures and improve the legal system. He said Vietnam hoped to enter the World Trade Organization by 2005 and cited a mass criminal trial, now under way, as evidence Hanoi was serious about cracking down on corruption.

When asked why foreign journalists weren't allowed to cover the trial on a regular basis, however, he chuckled and blamed the shortage of space in the courtroom. "The courtroom was built by the French 100 years ago," he said.

Mr. Khai also played down a trade dispute with the U.S. over alleged dumping of Vietnamese catfish in the U.S. market, the first such case to be brought since the two countries' bilateral trade agreement took effect. The Catfish Farmers of America, which represents U.S. fish farmers, has petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission, contending that Vietnam had captured 12% of the U.S. catfish market in 2001 by selling the fish at less than the cost of production.

Mr. Khai denied that Vietnam was dumping catfish, and said the U.S. decision to impose temporary tariffs on catfish imports from Vietnam "means that the U.S. does not have the goodwill and does not respect what we have committed [to]." However, he added, "We see it as a normal issue that we need to settle in order to further our trade relations."

Write to Reginald Chua at reginald.chua@awsj.com and to Margot Cohen at margot.cohen@feer.com.
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