The Human Cost of the TPP in Vietnam

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed omnibus trade pact that covers 12 nations on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, is not without critics, and, to be sure, there have been many. In the United States, the TPP has been subject to accusations of unnecessary secrecy and a danger to American jobs.

No less a conservative publication than the National Review has called for greater transparency on the trade agreement. Members of President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party, dominated by organized labor, which fears the loss of domestic jobs to overseas, have begun to voice their opposition over the level secrecy involved.

If successfully implemented, the TPP would expand economic opportunities for its 12 members in Asia-Pacific and facilitate greater trade integration. Except that the TPP is more than just a free trade agreement – the TPP encompasses environmental and labor standards, intellectual property, and food safety.

Yet, in the face of adversity and opposition, Obama continues to push ahead with the trade deal. It is not difficult to understand why the president refuses to slow down. Asia-Pacific is home to some of the fastest growing markets. According to the US Trade Representative, TPP countries contributed US$698 billion to US exports in 2013. Together, the 12 TPP countries account for about 37.5% of world Gross domestic product.

However, while the TPP, the biggest trade pact in history, has become a divisive issue in the US, ratification of the trade deal would be met with great anticipation in Vietnam. Should the TPP succeed, Vietnam would have greater access to US and Japanese markets. The agreement would undoubtedly be a boon to Vietnam’s economy and could transform the country into an export hub given its comparatively low wages.

It appears somewhat surprising that a Communist-governed country such as Vietnam would engage in free trade discussions; but no longer is Vietnam’s economy driven by old communist ideology, having jettisoned its centrally planned economy in the 1980s. Today Vietnam purports to maintain a socialist-oriented market economy, although a more apt description of the country’s current state is “crony capitalism.”

More than just a lack of accountability and transparency in Vietnam, which nearly cost the prime minister his job in 2012 after accusations of economic mismanagement, Vietnam’s state-owned enterprises are unlikely to play by the same rules as everyone else in the TPP. Vietnam has thus far rejected proposals for new trade rules for SOEs. It should therefore go without saying that the presence of state-subsidized firms in a free trade deal could undermine the fundamental spirit of such an agreement.

However, if the potential of an uneven playing field is not enough to give Obama pause on the TPP, he should at least consider the human cost in Vietnam.

A long-standing obstacle to Vietnam’s participation in the TPP has been its questionable record on human rights. It may be that the TPP will bring economic prosperity to Vietnam, but whether this prosperity will advance human rights is another matter entirely.

There is, in fact, no guarantee that any new labor standards included in the TPP can be enforced in Vietnam, which, to say the least, is not known for the stellar treatment of its workers. A recent report published by the International Labor Rights Forum on Vietnamese citizens released from drug centers being beaten and forced to work was especially damning.

It is difficult to imagine how Obama aims to ameliorate the human rights of Vietnamese citizens through the TPP when Vietnam’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2007, which had hoped to do the same thing, did little of the sort. Rather, not long after joining the WTO, Human Rights Watch reported a crackdown on peaceful dissidents by Hanoi.

Little has changed since Vietnam’s admission to the WTO, and instead one could argue that labor and human rights have steadily got worse. In the same time period during which the US was negotiating with Vietnam on the TPP, more than 150 dissidents and critics were convicted by the Vietnamese government; and independent unions outside the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor continues to remain outlawed.

If nothing else, there are important lessons to be learned. It is evident from past experience that trade will not improve labor and human rights in Vietnam, and that promises from Hanoi to do better have been meaningless. The TPP may improve Vietnam’s economy but is unlikely to bring about much needed reforms.

If human rights are a cornerstone of US foreign policy, then Vietnam’s place in the TPP should be given more than just a second glance. The Vietnamese government has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to undertake human rights reforms. If demands for new rules governing SOEs and labor rights are equally cast aside by Hanoi then who other than Vietnam will benefit from the TPP? Why change when admission is guaranteed?

The successful implementation of the TPP would be a win for Obama, but such a win might very well satisfy the definition of a Pyrrhic victory. With support draining from fellow Democrats and increasing reliance on Republicans, Obama could end his final term in office alone, isolated, and with few friends. However, the political cost of the trade deal would pale in comparison to the message received from countries such as Vietnam, who can continue to fail upwards.

Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. Duvien Tran is a special research associate at VDK Law Office focusing on foreign policy and South China Sea security issues.