The Bush administration hopes to build on a US export boom that is helping to reduce the US trade deficit from last year’s record $758.5 billion, US Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said.

“Our focus is on growing exports and that’s what we’re going to continue to do,” Gutierrez told a small group of reporters. “We’re proving once again our companies can compete.”

US exports have risen 11.6% so far this year, compared to a much smaller gain of 4.3% for imports, Gutierrez said.

That builds on the progress made last year, when exports rose 12.7% and imports 10.4%, and “that’s why we’re seeing our trade deficit decline,” Gutierrez said.

After setting a record in each of the past several years, the US trade gap is expected to narrow in 2007.

The deficit through the end of August totaled $471.9 billion, compared to $517.5 billion in the same period last year.

Many economists attribute some of the US export boom to the weaker dollar, which makes US goods more affordable overseas.

Gutierrez declined to comment on what role the dollar has played in boosting US exports because, he said, US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was the administration’s spokesman on currency issues.

The Bush administration is doing its part to expand exports by negotiating free trade agreements and pursuing other initiatives to open markets around the world, Gutierrez said.

He announced during the meeting with reporters he would be leading a delegation of 23 companies on a trip to Vietnam to explore new business opportunities there.

“Vietnam is a relatively new market ... They opened up in the nineties after China and they’re a very fierce competitor” as well as an attractive export opportunity, Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez urged Congress to do its part to help boost US exports by passing four pending free trade agreements with Peru, Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

“The last thing we need to do is step back and see that export growth decline and go into a change of policy that would reflect a protectionist stance,” Gutierrez said “That leads to stagnation. That leads to reduction in exports. It leads to unemployment. It would be a very, very flawed policy.”

On another issue, Gutierrez said the United States would be looking for concrete results on several bilateral trade irritants when it holds high-level talks with China in December.

Although the final agenda for that meeting is still being formulated, one of the Bush administration’s top priorities is further action by China to reduce the widespread piracy and counterfeiting of US goods, Gutierrez said. (Reuters)