Why Vietnam Loves the Trans-Pacific Partnership

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Why Vietnam Loves the Trans-Pacific Partnership

In China’s shadow, Hanoi is biting on the trade pact and swallowing its bitter past with the United States.

Why Vietnam Loves the Trans-Pacific Partnership

A TPP ministerial meeting in 2014.

Credit: U.S. Trade Representative’s Office

When trade ministers from 12 countries convened in Auckland, New Zealand for the formal signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement on World Cancer Day on February 4, Public Citizen, a Washington-based advocacy group, organized a protest before the D.C. headquarters of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, an influential drug industry-lobbying group. Protestors decried TPP, a mammoth free trade agreement whose 12 members comprise nearly 40 percent of global GDP, as “the worst deal ever” and a “death sentence” for cancer and HIV patients, among others.

But on the other side of the Pacific, those fighting for the rights of Vietnamese patients likely to be impacted negatively by the trade deal were resigned to its passage and have argued against public protests. “We had indeed hoped for the death of the TPP,” Nguyen Anh Phong, a coordinator of the Vietnam Network of People living with HIV, said in an interview. “But we now know Vietnam desperately needs the TPP. Its benefits for the future of the entire country should outweigh the damages sick people stand to suffer.”

Phong’s stance highlights how helpless a handful of Vietnamese activists against the TPP are in a country where the masses have thrown support behind the controversial trade agreement. According to a Pew survey last year, just two percent of Vietnamese think that the deal will be a bad thing for their country, while 89 percent believe it will be good. The Vietnamese government has thus got a rare edge over other TPP countries when it comes down to joining the deal: overwhelming public endorsement.

When negotiations of the TPP concluded successfully last October in Atlanta, Georgia, Vietnamese journalists covered the event with jubilation reminiscent of victorious moments their predecessors reflected on the last day the American troops left Vietnam, ending a bloody decades-long war. “TPP negotiations are done; Vietnam enters a new playground,” read the front-page headline of Tuoi Tre, one of Vietnam’s largest-selling newspapers.

On that day, front-page headlines across the nation highlighted the prospect of Vietnam opening the floodgates to increased foreign investment, particularly to American companies, after the TPP takes effect. On the other end, media reports crooned that the deal would also enable tariff-free access to the United States for Vietnamese companies, particularly apparel, footwear and textile exporters. It would also pave the way for Vietnam’s overhaul of its much-cosseted yet inefficient public sector. Overall, the TPP has been hailed as an omen of a much-anticipated return of the United States to a country now awash with Americano-philia.

But with the Vietnamese media being so gung-ho about the rosy future of the post-TPP era, its coverage has eschewed some of its negative ramifications. One issue that has remained unexplored is that Vietnam, along with the other 11 signatories, would have to respect patents protection of major pharmaceutical companies for between five and eight years. This could make it impossible for sick patients suffering from potentially fatal diseases like HIV or cancer in Vietnam to afford the drugs they need. There are around 250,000 Vietnamese suffering from HIV/AIDS; the country also logs around 150,000 new cases of cancer annually, more than half of which prove fatal, according to the World Health Organization.

Higher drug prices are not the only compromise Vietnam has agreed to make to join the TPP, however. One of the most glaring threats that the Vietnamese media have also glossed over is the investor state dispute settlement, an instrument which grants corporations the right to sue a foreign government. On top of that, under the deal, Vietnam is required to amend its labor laws and allow workers to form independent trade unions, a real litmus test for a country where the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor is the only legal trade union representing all workers.

Such complicit trade-offs have forced observers to grapple with a vexing question: Why is the poorest and arguably the most vulnerable TPP country so unreservedly enthusiastic about a trade deal that activists say would contain many elements detrimental to the interests of its most marginalized people?

Clearly, the overwhelming reason is a desire in Vietnam for closer relations with the United States in the shadow of a China that is now flexing its muscles. “No country had to do more to enter the TPP than Vietnam,” Zachary Abuza, a Washington-based Southeast Asia analyst, said in an interview. Such political will crystallizes “how far Vietnamese leaders are willing to go to secure a deeper economic relationship with the United States,” Abuza said.

With a Pew survey in 2014 showing that 76 percent of Vietnamese embraced the United States as a helpful ally, “the TPP is being sold as a counter to China’s domination,” Dennis McCornac, a professor of economics at Loyola University in Baltimore (Maryland), told The Diplomat. “Although the extent to which it will hurt China is unknown, the recent events have created an environment in Vietnam in which anything that hurts China is interpreted as being good,” McCornac says.

Friend, Not Foe

Such anti-China sentiment runs deep in a country with bruising experiences of more than a thousand years of occupation, three deadly wars in the 1970s and 1980s and lingering tensions in the South China Sea with its giant next-door neighbor.

“Given the much longer periods of French colonialism and Chinese aggression against Vietnam, and given the strategic importance of the United States in the world after 1975,” Edwin Martini, an associate professor of history at Western Michigan University, said in an interview, “we should not be surprised that the Vietnamese people or the Vietnamese government were more ready to put the past behind them more quickly with the United States.”

But perhaps what has struck observers the most is the lack of bitterness toward the United States even when Vietnam was in the throes of a brutal war that cost over three million Vietnamese lives and even when Hanoi bore the brunt of Washington’s economic stranglehold that ensued two decades after the war ended.

In 1970, during a short hiatus in the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, Noam Chomsky, the leading American political activist and one of the most vociferous critics of America’s foreign policies, was invited to visit the capital Hanoi and lecture at the Polytechnique University there. Chomsky recalled that the first morning he arrived, he was taken to the war museum to listen to long lectures with dioramas about Vietnamese wars with China many centuries ago. “The lesson was clear,” he said in an interview, “you happen to be destroying us now, but you’ll leave. China will always be here.”

Vietnam won the military battle against the United States, but imperceptibly lost the economic battle because it could not survive or thrive without foreign capital. According to Nayan Chanda’s acclaimed post-war history of Indochina, Brother Enemy: The War after the War, American banks and oil companies were invited to Hanoi as early as 1976 — one year after the war ended — to explore the possibility of trade and financial relations. The United States, seeking to “contain” Vietnam, instead opted for a trade embargo that crippled the country until 1995.

But against that backdrop, a 2010 Associated Press-GfK poll, still considered one of the most exhaustive surveys to date of contemporary Vietnamese attitudes, found that 56 percent of 1,600 Vietnamese surveyed across the country said they rarely, if ever, think of the Vietnam War, which ended in April 30, 1975.

“I would not say that the Vietnamese have ‘forgotten’ the horrors of the war, but they have been more willing to forgive the United States than other countries with which they have been at war,” said Martini, the Michigan professor of history. “American visitors to Vietnam, myself included, have long been fascinated by the way in which the Vietnamese, from the immediate postwar period, were willing to look forward, rather than backward, in relationships with the United States and with Americans. Everyone I’ve ever met or worked with in Vietnam has been strongly pro-American, eager to connect.”

Such pro-America sentiment is amplified by the relative youth of the population, with most born after the Vietnam War. Two-thirds of the country’s population of 90 million were born after 1975; today, young people between 10 to 24 years represent almost a third of the total population. According to the 2014 Pew survey, an overwhelming majority of young Vietnamese (89 percent) look more favorably on the United States than do their seniors (64 percent). “The young people feel a disconnect from the leadership that secured Vietnam’s independence and sovereignty,” said Abuza. “Anyone born in the past 30 years has known nothing but peace.”

Ho Chi Minh City, once the capital of the U.S.-backed puppet regime under the name of Saigon, is now teeming with growing outlets of McDonald’s and Starbucks, a gathering place of the youth. The present economic hub of Vietnam also boasts a growing number of iPhone stores, which have always had their young clienteles anxiously waiting for the debut of new versions, considered an emblem of chic Americanization and tech-savvy lifestyle there.

Vietnam has been among the top ten countries sending students to the US. Intriguingly, the country now ranks sixth in the list with nearly 29,000 students at American institutions, mostly colleges and universities, according to latest figures released by the U.S.’ Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. To put things in perspective, Vietnam outshines Japan in total enrollment and comes close to Canada; the current number of Vietnamese students in the U.S. has almost doubled that in 2009, when the country first made it to the top ten with some 16,000 students.

The increasing number of Vietnamese students per year in the U.S., Abuza notes, will have a “profound impact” on the country. “It certainly changes attitudes,” he added.

‘The Chinese Threats Are Always There’

Since Beijing upped the ante in the flashpoint South China Sea over the past years, Vietnamese youth have always played an indispensable role in anti-China protests that erupted sporadically both at home and abroad.

In an unusual move in a country where official speeches are often duly scripted in the most mundane fashion, the anti-China sentiment was underscored in a commencement speech by the rector of a prominent private university in Ho Chi Minh City last year. It is also such sentiment that appears to be a rare pull factor that is able to unite around 30 million users on Facebook, Vietnam’s most beloved social media platform for grassroots advocacy.

Vietnamese leaders, who are increasingly aware of public sentiment on social media, have taken note. It is in this context that China’s unwavering territorial ambitions have increasingly driven Vietnam to ramp up its relationship with the United States

Many in Vietnam are holding fast to hopes that the TPP will play a crucial role as a bulwark against its giant northern neighbor. Officially, no Vietnamese leader has advocated playing off a single juggernaut against another. But the undertones are clear when Vietnamese and American officials reiterate that the deal is a strategic political instrument, not just a trade agreement.

While the TPP is still pending approval on Capitol Hill and may even be derailed there, its green-light is a complete no-brainer in Vietnam.

Last January, a conclave of the ruling Communist Party gave the Vietnamese government the go-ahead to sign the TPP a month later in New Zealand. The deal will have to wait for the National Assembly — Vietnam’s legislature — to vote on it, probably later this year. But in a 500-member parliament where 90 percent of lawmakers are Communist Party members who toe the official line, the approval process of the TPP is just a matter of formality. “I’m convinced that the [newly-installed] parliament will approve the TPP” when it convenes in June, Nguyen Duc Kien, vice chair of the parliamentary economy committee, told the Vietnamese media in February.

But still, skeptics remain leery of the much-touted benefits of the TPP for Vietnam and its role in the rapprochement between the two former foes as constantly billed as officials from both sides.

“The Vietnamese should be wary of putting to many eggs in the TPP basket. It [may end] up working in the corporate interests and not the individual’s,” Martini said. “The United States did turn its back to Vietnam to seek other interests, whether with China, France, or multinational corporations rather than look after the interests of the Vietnamese people. History lessons are always relevant.”

The TPP has a few opponents in Vietnam. Chuck Searcy, an American war veteran who has spent more than two decades working to clean up the war remnants (including land mines and chemical pollution) in Vietnam, is among a handful of activists lobbying against the TPP in that country. He has been circulating a carefully crafted document warning against the possible ramifications of the deal.

“The TPP will not bring cooperation or benefits to American or Vietnamese citizens. It is a carefully contrived and very complicated expansion of corporate power over both governments,” the document says. “In the case of Vietnam, this corporate influence may actually threaten the country’s sovereign rights as an independent nation with its own laws and regulations.”

But his efforts have received scant attention from the Vietnamese media, if any. In a country where the press has enthusiastically parroted the talking points of ardent champions of the TPP, those in the opposing camp are being sidelined and dismissed as being backwards and conservative.

“We are sympathetic to the leaders,” said Phong, the coordinator of the Vietnam Network of People living with HIV. “We only hope that at the very least, the affected patients won’t feel left behind when the country marches toward development.”

His network has been coalescing a group of HIV/AIDS, cancer and pneumonia patients representing nearly half a million of such people in Vietnam, not to protest or to vent indignation, but only to spread out information about how the TPP is going to affect them after it takes effect.

But at the end of the day, Phong, born four years after the end of the war, belongs to a young generation that typically thinks that their country would benefit from improved relations with the United States. Just like most of his peers, Phong is buying into what he has perceived as the goodwill of the United States.

“The Americans and their government are doing their best to make war reparations here in Vietnam,” he said, proudly recalling a certificate of merit U.S. Ambassador Ted Osius conferred on him last year for his contribution to the civil society movement.

“We the Vietnamese are always altruistic and tolerant. Meanwhile, the Chinese threats are always there.”

 Dien Luong is a master’s candidate at Columbia Journalism School, New York.