Obama’s “Déjà vu” Vietnam Diplomacy
A high-stakes diplomatic drama is playing out between the United States and Vietnam. While the focus is on enhancing bilateral economic ties in the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, the economics are also related to broader security- and human rights issues. This article has some fresh news to report on what’s going on behind the scenes: What the ruling Politburo in Hanoi has decided about deepening its economic ties with the major powers. What Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang and U.S. President Barack Obama had to say to each other during their July 25 White House meeting in the Oval Office. Who else was in the room — and why that was important.
There is also background information to report that sheds light on the intense pressures that U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman has been bringing to bear on Vietnam, notably last week in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. On Aug. 22-23, Froman had private talks with his Vietnamese counterpart, Vu Huy Hoang, on the sidelines of the 19th round of the TPP trade talks, which are continuing this week in Brunei. Washington has been playing an intimidation game, pressuring Hanoi to accept an economic deal that is clearly not in Vietnam’s best interests — and just might get away with it.
But it’s not the hard news that captivates, but rather, the déjà vu feeling of another historical turning point in U.S.-Vietnamese relations. On Aug 30, 1945 — 68 years to the day, it turns out, that the TPP’s 19th round of negotiations will conclude this Friday in Brunei — Ho Chi Minh wrote the first of several letters to U.S. President Harry Truman. Uncle Ho sought Truman’s support for Vietnamese aspirations to gain independence from French colonial rule. The letters went unanswered, as the Truman administration’s higher priority involved helping the French recover from the devastations of World War II.
“In historical terms, it was a monumental decision by Truman, and like so many that U.S. presidents would make in the decades to come, it had little to do with Vietnam herself — it was all about America’s priorities on the world stage,” historian Fredrik Logevall has observed in his acclaimed Embers of War. The concerns of more enlightened observers in the U.S. State Department and in the intelligence community, who worried about the consequences of getting on the wrong side of the battle against colonialism, were overridden.
When they met in the Oval Office last month, President Sang displayed a keen sense of history when he gave Obama a copy of one of Uncle Ho’s letters to Truman. Hanoi has good reason to worry that the top Obama White House priority, once again, is not really focused on the Vietnamese economy.
In the TPP trade talks, the White House has been fighting tooth and nail on behalf of the protectionist U.S. textile lobby — Obama’s loyal allies who have supported him in his two successful presidential races. The top priority of the (globally uncompetitive) U.S. mills is denying Vietnam more access to protected U.S. clothing and footwear markets in a TPP trade deal.
As in the late 1940s, a few enlightened U.S. diplomats (quietly) and intelligence officials (very quietly) have now let their concerns be known around Washington. But Washington’s seasoned Asia hands find themselves basically sidelined by the White House domestic political priorities, much as their predecessors were nearly seven decades ago.
Meanwhile, President Sang, on behalf of the ruling Politburo, had his own message to deliver to Obama last month.
To better understand the nuanced blend current spot news and history, let’s begin with that White House meeting.
Spinning Oval Office diplomacy
When it comes to diplomacy, sometimes what the public sees is true — just not the whole picture. Consider the video that the White House posted on its website on July 25. Viewers see Sang and Obama meeting alone in the Oval Office, sitting in armchairs in front of a fireplace, each wearing appropriate dark power suits with muted ties. The image that the White House spinmeisters — who also put the video on You Tube — intended to convey recalls famous historical one-on-one diplomatic talks at the highest level: Nixon with Mao, or Roosevelt and Stalin.
But the Obama-Sang meeting was hardly a Roosevelt-Stalin like moment. It was a scripted, ceremonial occasion, typical of how American presidents have come to host visiting foreign dignitaries in recent years.
An unpublished photo shot by someone else in the room with a wide-angle lens shows that Sang had nine men in the Oval Office with him. Trade Minister Hoang was there, along with Agriculture Minister Cao Duc Phat and the head of Vietnam’s presidential office, Dao Viet Trung. Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States Nguyen Quoc Cuong also was present, as was Lt. Gen. To Lam. Gen. Lam is the deputy minister of Public Security, and formerly headed the ministry’s counter-intelligence department. Lam is also a member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.
With so many watchers — not all of them necessarily loyal to President Sang’s own supporters in the Politburo — no Vietnamese president would be positioned to engage in substantive bargaining.
A sense of history
Perhaps the three most interesting Vietnamese officials present were the translator, Pham Xuan Hoang An; Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, and Colonel General Nguyen Chi Vinh, the deputy minister of national defense. These men carry a sense of history with them — and a longstanding serious professional interest in U.S.-Vietnamese diplomacy. To experienced Vietnamese watchers, the news that An, Vinh and Minh were in the Oval Office will convey a sense of Vietnamese seriousness.
Interpreter An’s father, Pham Xuan An, was perhaps the most important communist spy during the Vietnam War. An’s cover was as a reporter for western news outlets, including Reuters and Time magazine. This complicated man was made a general after the North Vietnamese victory in 1975. But then Gen. An was also detained in a camp for “reeducation” for a year, because he was suspected as being too close to the Americans.
In fact, An loved America (he helped one of the CIA’s most important assets escape when the communists took Saigon). But after the war, the spy explained to his American friends that his top priority had always been working for his country’s independence. An’s double life was the subject of Larry Berman’s fascinating Perfect Spy, published in 2007. Now, An’s son, translator Pham Xuan Hoang An, works in Vietnam’s consulate in San Francisco. Like his father, the younger An is a man who knows both countries very well.
While Colonel Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh is hardly a household name in America, he is well known to Vietnamese watchers. His father, Gen. Nguyen Chi Thanh, was Vietnam’s second-ever general, after Vo Nguyen Giap. Gen. Thanh was the mastermind of the coordinated uprisings in nearly every major South Vietnamese urban center during the Tet Lunar New Year festivities in January of 1968. The Tet Offensive did not succeed in a military sense. But it is credited with being the proverbial last straw for the fed-up American public, which realized that the White House claims that the communists were on the verge of defeat were false.
Vinh is a member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, and formerly headed the military intelligence department known (and feared) as Tong Cuc 2. Veteran Hong Kong-based foreign correspondent Greg Torode has called Vinh Vietnam’s wily “Old Fox,” a man who is generally regarded as “Vietnam’s shrewdest strategic thinker.”
Vinh has been a key actor in Vietnam’s delicate balancing act involving major powers with security interests in the Pacific. He has been an important player in a variety of sensitive issues: countering Chinese intimidation in the South China Sea while simultaneously establishing military ties with Beijing; submarine and other weapons purchases from Russia; and also increasing U.S.-Vietnamese military cooperation. Vinh, who is well known in both Washington and Beijing, also showed up earlier this month for private talks with senior defense officials in Tokyo (who also have good reasons to worry about Chinese continuing aggressive moves in the Pacific).
Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh also has a famous father. Nguyen Co Thach was Vietnam’s foreign minister from 1980 – 1991, where he worked unsuccessfully to normalize ties with the defeated Americans. Like his father, Foreign Minister Minh has a reputation as being keenly aware of the strategic importance of developing closer ties with the United States, by way of countering undue Chinese influence.
Minh related candidly at a Council of Foreign Relations event in 2011 that he had been full of “hatred” during the war, when as a child he endured the U.S. bombing of Hanoi. But ever since he joined the Vietnamese diplomatic service after the 1975 communist victory, Minh — like his father — has focused his own career upon finding ways to forge closer ties with Vietnam’s former war enemy.
Obama’s Diplomatic Team
While the July 25 Sang-Obama White House meeting was a tightly scripted affair, there was at least one moment of spontaneity, where Obama briefly reached out to strike a personal rapport with his Vietnamese guest. When U.S. and foreign “pool” journalists were admitted to the Oval Office for the usual photo opportunity, they shouted some questions to the two presidents. Obama ignored them, but was overheard whispering to Sang, “reporters are the same everywhere.”
A White House press aide declines to discuss who else was in the meeting on either the Vietnamese- or the American side. Pool reporters who were let in for the photo ceremony saw two U.S. officials besides National Security Adviser Susan Rice: Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, and U.S. trade negotiator Froman.
Pritzker, an Obama fundraiser from Chicago, is new to foreign affairs. Her Commerce Department is the agency that is widely resented in Vietnam for inflicting protectionist anti-dumping tariffs on the Vietnamese shrimp and catfish industries. And Froman, although also close to Obama, brings more of a domestic political focus to his job than genuine foreign policy experience. (Any diplomatic heavy lifting that was done would have been done a few blocks away from the White House, at Secretary John Kerry’s State Department. Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran, hosted the Vietnamese presidential delegation on July 24. He was in New York when the Vietnamese visitors met with Obama the next day.)
Scripted or not, still, important signals were sent by both presidents.
A Message from the Politburo
The Vietnamese delegation made it clear to Obama — as they had a day earlier in a meeting with trade negotiator Froman — that they were sincere about attaching a very high priority to advancing economic ties with the United States in the TPP negotiations, according to well-informed Vietnamese officials and also senior U.S. diplomatic officials who asked not to be identified.
Carlyle Thayer, a respected Vietnamese watcher who has excellent high-level connections in Hanoi, explains. Thayer, who is affiliated with the Australian Defense Force Academy, says he has seen a copy of an April 10 resolution drafted by the ruling Politburo, which has not yet been publicly released. “It makes economic integration with all the major powers Vietnam’s top priority, over all other forms of integration, including security,” Thayer reports.
In the Oval Office, President Sang stressed to Obama what Vietnamese officials have been saying for the last three years: that if the TPP negotiations are to succeed, Vietnam will need economic incentives — mainly substantial additional access to U.S. clothing- and footwear markets, which are currently encumbered with high tariffs. Vietnam’s main problem with the TPP is that for the same past three years, the White House has held up progress in the negotiations by refusing to make serious tariff-slashing offers.
White House press officials decline to discuss Obama’s response to Sang. For public consumption the two presidents agreed to put out a (bland) public statement noting that they would instruct their aides to do their utmost to complete the TPP by the end of this year. (The White House said the same thing last year, and also in 2011. Froman has been telling people that this time, the administration really means it.)
Signals from Washington
What little detail is known about what Obama said during the meeting has been revealed by U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam David Shear, who spoke to a high-powered Vietnamese-American gathering in Washington, D.C.’s Virginia suburbs on August. 16. Shear said that the Obama administration considers the TPP negotiations to be “extremely important.” But without “demonstrable progress on human rights” by Hanoi on human rights, “we will not be able to generate congressional support” for a TPP deal, the ambassador added.
Shear related that human rights had come up twice in the Obama-Sang meeting. The first, he said, was part of a general reference linking human rights as the key to enhanced economic and security ties.
According to the ambassador, the second reference to human rights came after Sang expressed Vietnam’s desire to purchase U.S. “lethal” weapons. “If you want to do that,” Shear said that Obama replied, “you’ve got to improve your human-rights practices.” (A full transcript of Shear’s remarks has not yet been posted on the U.S. embassy’s website.)
As Hanoi’s human-rights record is currently being compared unfavorably to Vietnam’s Asian neighbors — even notorious Cambodia has held elections, while Myanmar has been busy freeing its political prisoners — Obama’s point is well taken. The Politburo must be asking itself these days what benefits the country is getting by continuing to imprison more than 160 peaceable political prisoners, whose “crimes” were merely exercising their rights to free political speech and peaceable assembly.
But the same Politburo members who are on the defense on human rights must also be asking why they should sign onto a TPP deal that would offer Vietnam dubious economic benefits.
Secret “21st Century” negotiations
Some parts of the TPP negotiations, to be sure, would clearly be aimed at boosting the Vietnamese economy. Vietnam has been struggling with the politically difficult task of reforming the country’s famously inefficient state-owned enterprises for some two decades.
Vietnam’s SOEs basically are secretive black holes and a drag on more than a third of the country’s economy. When the Obama White House spins the TPP deal as a “high-standard, 21st century” deal that will set an enviable template for trade in the Asia-Pacific region, SOE reforms come immediately to mind.
But other than the self-serving slogans, the White House has been refusing to explain to the watching publics any details of what the Vietnamese are being asked to do. Ironically, the White House is demanding that the Vietnamese economy become more open to market-oriented economics, while classifying what that might entail as a state secret.
Enter “Yarn Backward”
What Hanoi wants most in the TPP is for the United States to slash its high tariffs on imported footwear and clothing. There is a sort of role reversal here. The commies in Hanoi are pressing for free-market access to protected American markets. The Americans are demanding state control. The economic notion is called “yarn forward,” but the economics are hardly forward looking.
As I’ve previously reported, the French 19th century colonialists required that their Vietnamese subjects supply the mother country with textiles. Such imperial preference schemes supported France’s economic domination of Indochina — and inspired Vietnam’s independence movement.
Now the Americans are demanding the same sort of arrangement in the TPP. Vietnam would only qualify for duty-free treatment on its clothing- and footwear exports to the United States if it bought yarn and fabrics from another TPP country — translation: from the declining mills in the U.S. South, not non-TPP countries like China.
It doesn’t take an economics degree to see the flaws. Nobody — beyond insular-looking U.S. mills that long ago lost their competitive edge in global markets — pretends it makes economic sense. Why would any White House pressure the likes of Levis or Gap to buy their (heavy) denim from U.S. suppliers and ship it across the Pacific to Southeast Asia? Why would Obama even think of trying to force giant underwear manufacturer Hanesbrands to stop supplying its Vietnamese manufacturing from Hanes’ established suppliers in China or Thailand? Why would any White House insist that it has the right to disrupt the global supply chains of such respected major American corporations?
U.S. Trade Representative Froman has refused repeated requests to explain exactly why “yarn forward” would be in Vietnam’s best economic interests.
I have also asked U.S. Ambassador Shear if he was able to point to any economic benefits to Vietnam in the yarn forward notion. Shear has been put in the diplomatically awkward position of defending the White House position on yarn forward to the Vietnamese. Shear declined to defend yarn forward’s economic rationale publicly. The ambassador referred the question back to trade negotiator Froman, who again declined comment.
[Ambassador Shear has a reputation as a thoughtful diplomat, albeit something of a team player. His deliberate non-answer could be interpreted as a diplomatic wink, conveying his distaste for the whole business. In private meetings with U.S. corporate executives, Shear has toed the Obama line, but his body language has suggested his discomfort.]
Meanwhile, the White House has been demanding that American clothing manufacturers turn over confidential information on how their global supply chains operate. Intimidated, the companies have mostly knuckled under. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative even has a special web site for the companies to divulge their business secrets to the government. This access to the private proprietary data has given Froman and his aides the means to instruct the domestic industry where it can source their materials (the U.S. South) and where they can’t (China).
The American clothing importers are now scrambling behind the scenes to receive special exemptions for themselves from the White House. The corporate lobbyists are looking to protect at least parts of their global supply chains from White House interference.
Of course, even with the limited TPP carve-outs that the feds may grant, the rules would always still be subject to sudden change, depending upon unpredictable bureaucratic whims. The American companies could stop the whole business if they had the nerve to stop groveling — which they have never quite summoned in previous U.S. trade negotiations.
The White House unconvincingly denies that the TPP is part of an anti-China economic encirclement strategy. Yarn forward was first included in the U.S. preferential trade deal with Mexico in the early 1990s, and then to other Latin American countries. The idea then, as now, was to hold back Chinese and later, other Asian imports.
It has failed. The rules are so cumbersome that only about 17 percent of Latin American trade goes through the “yarn forward” rules. Companies mostly prefer to pay the tariffs rather than suffer the paperwork.
Relief for Africa
When the Africans were negotiating the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act with the United States in the 1990s, the congressional Black Caucus vehemently objected to yarn forward rules because the principle offended them. Congressmen like Charles Rangel, a Democrat who represents New York’s Harlem neighborhood, fumed that yarn forward reeked of colonialism. Moreover, Rangel protested, such rules were even racist. Consequently, the AGOA trade deal allows the Africans to buy their cotton and other fabrics from China, or anywhere, as long as the final clothes are “cut and sewn” in Africa. In the TPP negotiations, anything short of clean “cut and sew” rules for clothing would hold back Vietnam’s export potential.
Another bitter irony for Vietnam: These days Rep. Rangel and other African-American lawmakers are lobbying for Obama to force upon Vietnam the same yarn-forward rules they formerly attacked as colonial and racist. And Central American countries like the Dominican Republic, who aren’t in the TPP and want to keep Asian competitors at bay, are also piling on Vietnam.
Undeterred, in Brunei last week, trade negotiator Froman still insisted that strict yarn forward rules remained at the “core” of what the U.S. wants in the TPP. He continued to withhold from the public any real details of what was in the TPP, other than the spin that it would be a “high standard, 21st Century” trade template.
The smart money would bet that the Vietnamese will end up swallowing hard and accepting a watered-down TPP deal, giving them modest increased market access for shoes and clothes, while making minimal market-opening concessions to the Americans. Call that TPP Light.
But perhaps the shrewd Politburo operatives in Hanoi, or at least enough of them, have the same sort of determination as did their fathers’ generation. After all, the Vietnamese negotiators should understand that Obama is the one who needs a TPP deal most. Could the American president really allow the TPP to fail, just because the Vietnamese want to sell Americans more pairs of underwear, blue jeans, and sneakers?
Talk about a déjà vu feeling. In the 1940s, President Truman ignored prescient warnings from U.S. intelligence and diplomatic officials that it would be a big mistake for the United States to get on the wrong side of the struggle against colonialism. Now, President Obama pays little heed to warnings that it is unwise to risk important trade talks with Vietnam — and America’s standing in Asia — for parochial domestic politics.
Some people never seem to learn their history.
Mr. Sang Comes to Washington
Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang — a powerful senior member of the ruling Politburo, where the major governmental decisions are hammered out for the Central Committee of the ruling Communist Party — will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House on July 25. One way or the other, Thursday’s meeting for the two heads of state will be important. It comes at a time of increased tensions that have been holding back closer strategic and economic ties between the two former war enemies.
Sang and Obama have an opportunity to forge a deeper (mutually respectful) bilateral relationship. But it is not at all clear whether either leader has the vision or the necessary political instincts to seize it. The two heads of state may just try to put out an attractive spin, hoping to gloss over important differences on the core issues that presently divide Washington and Hanoi. The two most difficult of those: Vietnamese human-rights practices that insult accepted international legal norms (as seen from Washington’s perspective), and insulting rich-country economic pressures (Hanoi’s view).
The White House has listed “human rights” as the first of three topics that will be on the agenda when the two leaders meet on Thursday. “Climate change” is the second named priority, followed by the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks involving the United States, Vietnam and ten other Asia-Pacific countries.
But the real agenda is broader, involving fundamental decisions that need to be made by both countries on whether to deepen their strategic and security cooperation. The sharp-eyed David Brown, a special correspondent for the Asia Sentinel, has written that President Sang and the Politburo appeared to have been “shaken” when Sang visited Beijing in June. Apparently in his private talks with top Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, the Vietnamese president came away with nice words, but little of substance. Because of the “evidently jolting encounter with China’s leaders,” Brown wrote, a “hurried” visit to Washington was then arranged. In Washington, the Politburo wants Sang to find out whether President Obama — a politician who, in some Asian eyes, has acquired a certain reputation for offering mostly happy talk in his dealings with his foreign peers — will be any more helpful.
Neither government was divulging further details of what Sang and Obama will have to chat about on Thursday. A White House spokesman refused even to say in what room of the White House Presidents Obama and Sang would be talking, much less identify who else might be in that room.
A close look at each of the three specific items on the Sang-Obama agenda suggests that for each president, any truly “frank” diplomatic exchanges would pose awkward questions, not to say outright mutual embarrassments.
For Sang, the most awkward question would be to explain to Obama what benefit Vietnamese leaders think they really gain by holding hostage more than 160 political prisoners. These are Vietnamese citizens who have committed no “crimes” — other than to peaceably voice their complaints that their government is seen as becoming increasingly corrupt and unaccountable. And Obama might ask about a July 15 Hanoi decree that is aimed at prohibiting speech that goes “against the state of the socialist republic of Vietnam,” or any criticism that the party fears could “jeopardize national security,” Radio Free Asia has reported. The targets are popular internet icons like Google and Facebook.
Of course, it’s always tricky business for Americans to express reasonable opinions on human rights without sounding arrogant and self-righteous to always-sensitive Vietnamese leaders. Press too hard, and too publicly, and the commies could just arrest more innocent bloggers to stick it to the Americans. Press too quietly, and the authorities in Hanoi could just keep on doing whatever they please. Nobody’s ever really figured out the most appropriate diplomatic language.
[And if Obama’s tone on human rights offends Sang, the Vietnamese president might bring up the subject of dioxin. Sang might ask if the U.S. leader feels a sense of shame over the fact that a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi has recently denied to McClatchy reporter Drew Brown that many Vietnamese citizens today are still suffering from the tragic effects of dioxin sprayed by the U.S. Air Force on Vietnam during the shooting war.]
For Obama, perhaps the most embarrassing thing is that his White House — for purely domestic parochial reasons involving his political ties with U.S. organized labor and the globally uncompetitive U.S. textile lobby — has been stridently making demands of the Vietnamese in the TPP trade talks that the Politburo would be foolish to accept. Obama’s rather crude economic pressures, in fact, have been playing into the hands of those in Hanoi who increasingly question the value of closer commercial and strategic ties with the United States.
Beyond the mutual embarrassment potential, it turns out that what the White House wants to talk about regarding climate change illustrates — most likely, unwittingly for both Sang and Obama — just how complicated deepening the bilateral economic relationship has become.
On climate change, it could be that all Obama wants to do is burnish his “green” credentials by giving President Sang a nice lecture on the importance of nations’ working together to combat global warming.
But there’s something else important going on between Washington and Hanoi that illustrates how the politics of climate change have interjected themselves into the bilateral relationship. It’s not certain that the White House staff — which seems to be spread pretty thin these days — has briefed Obama on the implications of a decision last week by the U.S. Export-Import Bank to deny U.S. export financing to build a 1,200-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Vietnam’s Thai Binh province. But for sure, President Sang wouldn’t need a special briefing to understand fully the implications of the American act. This is because the Ex-Im decision goes directly to the heart of how political power is exercised in today’s Vietnam — and touches sensitive nerves in the Politburo.
Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other environmental groups complained in a July 17 letter to Obama that “this dirty coal plant will emit unacceptable air pollution that will worsen climate disruption and poison local communities.” Obama’s climate action plan, they (rightly) noted, is against U.S. financing of overseas coal projects, on grounds they increase greenhouse gas emissions.
The green lobbyists portrayed the Obama climate-action policies correctly. Ex-Im’s guidelines basically discourage financing for high carbon density overseas projects like coal plants. These days, Ex-Im is more interested in participating in viable renewable-energy projects. Anyway, after conducting an environmental “due diligence” examination, the U.S. export-financing agency found that the Thai Binh plans failed to pass muster. Because of that, the bank did not examine the other details of the project: financing, credit-worthiness, and so forth.
Most of the above was reported by U.S. wire services — but the best part of the story has gone unreported: precisely who wanted U.S. export financing for the Thai Binh coal-power plant?
Ex-Im doesn’t put such details on the public record before projects are approved. But a little digging reveals that the Ex-Im financing was sought to help one of Vietnam’s giant state-owned enterprises, PetroVietnam Power Corporation, which refers to itself as PV Power. PV Power is a subsidiary of the Vietnam National Oil and Gas Group, which goes by its acronym, PVN. According to a 2011 Vietnamese news report, PV Power’s Thai Binh 2 Thermo Power Plant is a $1.6 billion project. The main players are Korean and Japanese construction firms.
On August 3, 2012 the Charlotte, Va.-based Babcock & Wilcox Co. announced that a Beijing-based subsidiary — Babcock & Wilcox Beijing Co. Ltd. — had won a $300 million Thai Binh-related contract from South Korea’s Daelim Industrial Co. Ltd. Babcock & Wilcox said that it would do the engineering work in Beijing for two coal-fired boilers for the Thai Binh project, and would also participate in the manufacturing.
While a Babcock & Wilcox spokesman was unable to respond to questions asking about Thai Binh before this article went to press, it seems logical that PetroVietnam and the Korean company could have sought financing from the U.S. Ex-Im Bank to buy U.S.-manufactured equipment. How many American jobs would have been supported with the financing is not on the public record. (Nor is it clear what role coal plays — or perhaps should play — in addressing the energy needs of a developing country like Vietnam.)
The involvement of PetroVietnam, for those who know how what might be called the Vietnamese “political economy” works, suggests that the story’s ramifications go way beyond a normal fight over money and jobs with just one construction project.
State-owned corporations control perhaps a third of the Vietnamese economy. Inefficient, secretive and widely considered corrupt, SOE’s are also cash cows for senior members of the Communist Party. They report to the Prime Minister’s office, and are thus an important source of political patronage. (Imagine if President Obama would appoint the top echelons of a third of the Fortune 500, the likes of Boeing, General Electric, Microsoft, Google, Exxon, and so on.)
In the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, the Americans are demanding that the Vietnamese enact transparency reforms, and also that steps be taken to bring SOEs more market-oriented. It’s asking a lot, considering that the same government corporations have been making a lot of senior party officials — including at the Politburo level — very rich. The Politburo has been wrestling for most of the past decade over what to do about all this.
PetroVietnam has become controversial in Vietnam. Last October a report by Thanh Nien Daily, a Vietnamese newspaper, noted that PetroVietnam had been cricitized by economist Le Dang Doanh on grounds it “needs to disclose its finances and profit numbers.”
The Thanh Nien report added that the giant government corporation had denied accusations made publicly by National Assembly members that it had been using its taxpayers’ money to engage in real estate speculation. Then the Vietnamese newspaper asked why PV Power and other wholly-owned subsidiaries of PVN have their own real estate companies. The newspaper even ran a photo of the Nam Dan Plaza in Hanoi, described as “a new luxury department store project developed by PV Power.” (From the view of SOE executives, speculating in real estate ought to be more commercially attractive than power, because the government forces them to set electricity rates too low for Vietnamese consumers to be commercially viable.)
This week, Vietnamese officials who will be travelling with President Sang will be pressing their case with their Ex-Im counterparts. It is unlikely they will succeed. The U.S. officials might wonder whether PetroVietnam officials might just take any profits obtained from low-cost U.S. Ex-Im financing to speculate in even more dicey property deals.
A delicate mix
The Obama administration has turned up the pressure on Vietnam’s human rights practices. The price of Vietnam’s admission to the TPP, and of forging a genuine strategic relationship with Washington, will be explicitly linked to “demonstrable” progress on human rights, as U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam David Shear put it on June 1 to a Vietnamese-American audience in Orange County, California. The ambassador’s context was unambiguous: “I have been telling senior Vietnamese officials since my arrival in Vietnam in August of 2011, that if the Vietnamese people want a Trans-Pacific Partnership, if they want stronger cooperation in regional diplomacy leading to a strategic partnership, then we need to see demonstrable progress on human rights in Vietnam.”
Traditionally, it has not been official U.S. policy to make such an explicit link with human rights in any commercial negotiation. Shear’s remarks — which he declines to comment further upon — were initially dismissed as unserious by some veteran trade observers who cautioned that they should not be taken literally. Shear was just telling his California audience what it wanted to hear, according to this interpretation. Vietnamese-Americans and their representatives in the U.S. Congress have been critical of Shear, on grounds he has not done enough to improve Vietnamese human-rights practices.
Still, Shear is a senior, well-regarded American diplomat with considerable experience in Asia — he’s served in Japan, China, and Malaysia, and speaks Japanese and Mandarin. Nor does Shear have a reputation for loose talk. In his June 1 Orange County appearance, the ambassador spoke slowly and deliberately, conveying the impression that he was reciting officially authorized talking points. Also, Shear’s reference to how lack of human-rights progress has been the biggest obstacle to closer U.S.-Vietnamese strategic ties was fully consistent with official U.S. foreign policy as expressed often by senior State Department officials. The official State Department position is that U.S.-Vietnam strategic ties will not improve until there is “demonstrable, sustained improvement in the human rights situation.”
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman has declined to engage in any diplomatic walk-back that would put distance between U.S. trade policy and Shear’s remarks in Orange County. So it appears that the White House is comfortable with the notion that the Vietnamese should take Amb. Shear’s words at face value.
Enter the U.S. trade police
From the Vietnamese perspective, what Obama is asking them to do on “human rights” in the TPP trade talks appears, well, insulting.
Obama’s trade negotiators have been insisting in the TPP that the Vietnamese agree to the U.S. labor lobby’s demands that they permit independent union organizing — which U.S. officials insist must be enforceable. Such could be considered “human rights” progress, in American eyes.
Before it signs onto this idea, the Politburo might consider how similar arrangements have worked out for other countries that have struck recent trade deals with the Americans.
In the U.S.-Colombia bilateral trade agreement, that Latin country has been required to set up an “action plan” on labor that contains measurable “milestones” and a “robust enforcement regime,” with American officials playing their roles as the enforcers. The way this works practice in Washington, the American officials pay close attention to AFL-CIO labor activists, who never seem to be satisfied that foreigners are doing enough to live up to American standards.
On April 11, 2013, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Labor Department touted how they had pressed Guatemala to submit to “a robust enforcement plan to resolve concerns” that had been raised in a labor complaint by the United States in the preferential trade agreement involving the U.S. and the Latin country. The American officials congratulated themselves for making Guatemala come up with an 18-point plan to satisfy Washington’s demands. The plan “includes concrete actions with specific time frames that Guatemala will implement within six months to improve labor law enforcement.”
This is the first labor case that the U.S. has brought in any of its preferential trade deals — but the Vietnamese would have good reason to suspect that the American labor police have plans for them.
U.S. double standard
Enter the outright embarrassing part of the story for Obama. The reason the Vietnamese find the TPP talks attractive is the possibility of gaining additional access to protected U.S. clothing- and footwear markets — protected by high tariffs that hover in the 16-18 percent range, but for some lines, twice that. The Obama trade negotiators have been demanding essentially that the price of any tariff cuts for shoes and apparel be that the Vietnamese agree to purchase their fabric from U.S. suppliers.
The idea is hardly attractive to Hanoi.
First, as I reported in “Imperial Preferences” in this space on Sept. 11, 2012, one of the main reasons that Napoleon III sent the French navy to take the port of Saigon in 1859 was to force the Vietnamese to open their markets to exports of French textiles. Economists would agree that current American pressure in the TPP is just a modern-day version of French colonialism.
Secondly, the so-called “yarn forward” rules of origin don’t work. Only about 17 percent of U.S. imports of clothing from Mexico and other Latin American countries that have been forced by U.S. trade negotiators to accept the cumbersome rules actually get duty-free treatment. The importers prefer to pay the duties, rather than jump through the bureaucratic hoops, bear the costly paperwork burden, and such.
And last, think of how President Sang — under fire from Washington because of the Vietnamese government’s many interventions in its economy — could turn the tables on Obama. Sang might ask: Is it right for the U.S. government to pressure such major American corporations like the iconic Levi, Strauss & Co. and Gap, to agree to buy their (heavy) denim from U.S. suppliers and ship it all the way across the Pacific to Vietnam? Is it right for the White House to pressure Hanesbrands, which has its underwear plants and supply chains in nearby Asian countries like Thailand and China, to buy its cotton instead from the continental United States, and ship that cotton across the ocean? How about Patagonia, which makes down vests in Vietnam from high-tech Japanese materials? Why would the U.S. government want to disrupt the global operations of other respected private-sector corporations: Nike, Adidas, Macy’s, Nordstrom, and so many others?
Obama would, of course, be hard-pressed to respond with credible economic answers to such questions. But the White House has repeatedly insisted that Vietnam swallow the “yarn forward” rules of origin for textiles, and also the high tariffs on footwear.
From a Vietnamese perspective, Obama’s TPP negotiating strategy is reminiscent of how Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon once based American policies during the Vietnam war upon the premise that, with enough pressure from the rich superpower, this small Southeast Asian nation would ultimately bend to America’s will. But unless the Vietnamese get meaningful additional U.S. market access they are seeking in the TPP, it is difficult to think of good reasons why they should cave.
Prospects for closer U.S.-Vietnamese relations?
The final uncertainties involve just what the Vietnamese really want from their relations with Washington.
“There’s a delicate game going on” presently in the Politburo, explains scholar Carlyle Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy. Hardly for the first time in its long history, Vietnam is striving to balance it’s always-contentious relations with China, the Southeast Asian country’s closest neighbor, and at the same time with the United States. “Some in Hanoi want better ties with the U.S., while another group would sabotage those ties,” observes Thayer.
It’s the latter group that currently appears to have the upper hand, according to Thayer and other experienced Vietnam watchers interviewed for this article. That would help explain why Vietnam has arrested more than 40 peaceable bloggers this year, more political prisoners than all of 2012 — perhaps a deliberate hostile signal to the U.S. State Department and the White House.
To be sure, with any issue involving Vietnam there are so many nuances that nothing is ever what it seems to be. Sang’s three-day visit to China that began on June 19 could be interpreted as a sign that closer Vietnamese-Chinese ties were being considered. Even if it’s true that Chinese intransigence marred those meetings, Beijing could recover (by being less aggressive in claiming waters in the South China Sea that are clearly Vietnamese, for instance).
But how to interpret a visit that Vietnam’s deputy defense minister, Sen. Lieut. Gen. Do Ba Ty, made to the Pentagon on June 20, while Sang was in China? The Vietnamese general met with Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. Gen. Ty’s was the first such visit by a Vietnamese chief of staff to the United States, a Dempsey spokesman observed. The senior Vietnamese military delegation also notably included Lt. Gen. Pham Ngoc Hung, the deputy chief of the general intelligence department. Something’s afoot.
The only reasonably clear conclusion at this point in time is that the traditional Vietnamese foreign-policy balancing act will continue. And because the issues and differences that divide Vietnam, China, and the United States are so difficult to resolve neatly, the situation will continue to remain messier than it should.