Vietnam yesterday voiced regret after the US House of Representa-tives failed to pass a bill to fully normalize trade ties between the former enemies ahead of a visit by US President George W. Bush.
US lawmakers on Monday defeated the bill to grant permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) not subject to annual review to Vietnam, which this week hosts the annual APEC summit.
The House of Representatives is likely to bring the bill up for a second vote later this week, but even with House approval, it was unclear whether the Senate would push it through in time for Bush's visit from Friday.
"It is very regrettable that the US House of Representatives has not approved the bill to grant PNTR status to Vietnam," foreign ministry spokesman Le Dung said.
He said the defeat stood as a "failing to meet the interests and aspirations of the two countries, especially the interests of US businesses."
"We hope that the US Congress will approve PNTR to Vietnam at an early date," he added.
Vietnam and the US signed a landmark trade pact in May, and the communist country is due to join the WTO before the end of the year, opening its market to greater foreign investment and trade.
But without PNTR, US companies would not automatically enjoy the new market access granted to other countries once Vietnam becomes the WTO's 150th member.
The US-Vietnam WTO Coalition had on Monday written to Congressional leaders urging them to vote for PNTR, warning that US companies would miss out otherwise.
"The longer the delay in the granting of PNTR, the more disadvantaged our companies will be," warned the lobby group of 168 companies and organizations that includes corporate giants such as Boeing, Ford Motor and Microsoft.
Bush is travelling to the APEC summit with a large business delegation and he was hoping to arrive with PNTR in hand.
Helping to ensure a smooth APEC meeting, Vietnam last week freed and deported a Vietnamese-American political dissident, while Washington on Monday removed Hanoi from a blacklist of countries repressing religion.
"The president's game plan was to go, share center stage with 250 US businessmen and set a strategic new direction on the relationship," said Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy.
The PNTR bill had been held up for months in Congress, due to procedural hurdles and because many lawmakers were reluctant to tackle the often controversial issue of trade ahead of this month's mid-term elections.
"It's just a continuation of the kind of bumbling on this issue that detracts from the magic moment that Vietnam is now about to share with the rest of the world," Thayer said.