Vietnam is close to signing two major free trade deals that will send ripples across Asia. ASEAN Forum looks at the pacts’ potential impact on the country. WORDS BY LORCAN LOVETT
Any foreigners who have struggled to afford or even obtain some of their home comfort foods will soon be in for a pleasant surprise. There’s a wave of champagne, roquefort cheese, and Scotch whisky on the horizon, and another brimming with produce from the Pacific Rim countries, led by the US.
Vietnam is on the brink of signing two monolithic trade deals: the first with the EU, and the second with 12 countries known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The deals will run deeper than lowering the price of international food and drink. They will reshape the very foundations of Vietnam’s economy, transforming industries and affecting the lives of everyday working people.
Businesspeople and some politicians are rubbing their hands at the prospect of free trade with so many powerhouses, but the sheer size of each agreement has inevitably drawn critics from across the board.
Take the TPP for example. It’s the biggest trade agreement ever proposed for the Asia-Pacific region and comprises Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand and Peru, as well as Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, the US and Vietnam.
These countries represent almost 40 percent of global output and 25 percent of global exports of goods and services.
Critics say it will hand power from governments to corporations, allowing them to achieve profit by challenging domestic laws and banning non-brands.
Embodying US president Barack Obama’s ‘Asia Pivot’, the pact would be the US’s way of reaching out to Asia, minus the military, and balancing the power scales with China in the region.
It would also be open to new members: China itself has expressed interest in joining in the future, after initially seeing it as a threat. One day it may spread free trade and investment throughout the entire Asia- Pacific economic region.
Negotiations are in the final stages despite talks falling short of a deal in July because of clashes over dairy and automotive trade, as well as a dispute over data retention from biologic drugs, reported Reuters.
On a visit to Vietnam last month marking the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations, US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters the TPP could be completed before the end of 2015.
This would surge Vietnam’s exports by 28.4 percent to $307 billion in 2025, with apparel and footwear exports increasing by $51.9 billion to $165 billion, according to a study by professor Peter Petri of Brandeis University and the Peterson Institute.
The study predicts Vietnam would lose out on $67.9 billion in a decade without the TPP, while striking the deal would increase GDP by 10.5 percent in the same period.
There’s evidence the ground is already being prepared after foreign companies from TPP countries invested more than $3 billion into developing Vietnam’s textiles sector, so that exports will benefit from duty-free rates when the time comes.
Herb Cochran, executive director of the American Chambers of Commerce in Ho Chi Minh City, says the deal will create jobs while boosting business for foreign and domestic companies.
“There is momentum for reform to transform Vietnam’s economy and society into a more market-oriented economy,” he says. “This will come from implementing the commitments of transparency, consultation, and efficiency in government services that are in the TPP and other free trade agreements.”
However, Jessa Boehner, international programme associate for consumer rights group Public Citizen, says many US demands in the TPP would compromise access to life-saving medicine, including those for cancer and heart disease in Vietnam.
“[The proposals] would limit generic competition and raise pharmaceutical prices, restricting access to affordable medicine and hindering local pharmaceutical production and innovation,” she says.
The TPP also includes Investor-State Dispute Settlement, the controversial provision that takes place in independent tribunals and empowers foreign corporations to sue governments for laws that they claim affect their ability to make a profit.
“For developing countries, the financial liability can be devastating,” says Boehner. “Vietnam is not the only country that could suffer from these extreme provisions, but as a developing country, many of the implications of these proposals will be even more severe.”
After two and a half years of negotiations, the EU and Vietnam have reached an agreement in principle for a free trade agreement similar to the TPP.
The first of its kind that the EU has concluded with a developing country, the agreement aims to reduce market access barriers to goods, services and agriculture.
Trade in goods between the two economies was worth over $31.4 billion last year, with $24.6 billion of imports from Vietnam into the EU and $6.9 billion of exports from the EU to Vietnam.
Besides eliminating tariffs, Vietnam will also remove almost all of its export duties in the deal.
As Vietnam’s sixth largest foreign investor partner, the EU will capitalise on less limitations by increasing its key exports of high-tech products including aircraft and imports of coffee, rice and electronic products.
Finalising the legal text of this agreement is set to be completed before the end of the year. EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said on Europa.eu, the EU’s website: “Our deal will also make sure that trade does not happen at the cost of the environment or of people’s rights.
“The EU and Vietnam have committed to ensure the respect of workers’ rights and to support a sustainable management of natural resources.”
Journalist Bill Hayton dubbed Vietnam the ‘Rising Dragon’ in his book five years ago, which chronicled sweeping social change that has seen foreign investment soar in the country, and questioned what was next.
Now, it seems the dragon has taken flight, and, judging by the mass of international interest, it’s in for a thrilling ride.