Keeping a promise from his 2016 campaign, US president Donald Trump formally pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership today, a 12-nation trade and investment agreement in the works for nearly a decade.
Though the move will win plaudits from both the populist right and the anti-trade left (including Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, the former Democratic presidential candidate) Trump’s move is the first major unforced foreign policy error of the Trump administration. TPP opposition brings together an ascendant protectionist coalition that includes many of Trump’s populist supporters, but also many rust-belt and leftist Democrats and many organized labor officials.
In junking the US role in the TPP, a death knell for the trade accord, Trump has now cleared the way for the People’s Republic of China to set the baseline for trade rules across the Asia-Pacific region, negating hopes from the previous Obama administration to ‘pivot’ the country’s strategic and economic orientation toward the fast-growing region and backtracking on a decades-long bipartisan consensus that the United States takes an open and, indeed, leading approach to the ideal of free trade.
Though the general terms of global trade will continue to be governed by the World Trade Organization, regional trade deals allow for countries to deepen trade ties in ways that go beyond the standard WTO rules and to develop strategic alliances.
Trump railed against the TPP from the earliest months of his presidential campaign, arguing that it gave China an unfair advantage:
The TPP is horrible deal. It’s a deal that was designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone.
But China was never a signatory to the TPP and, indeed, was never party to the 12-country talks that also included stalwart US allies like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan. The US national interest in negotiating and signing an agreement like the TPP would have been to create a trade paradigm in the region that seeks to help US interests in contrast to Chinese interests and, of course, to draw both traditional allies and new allies closer to the United States economically and strategically.
If anything, the TPP provided a framework to protect the United States from Chinese competition. To the extent that American manufacturing jobs have suffered as a result of international trade, and from trade with China, in particular, it has come from the decision in 2000 by a Republican Congress and Democratic president Bill Clinton to grant permanent normal trade relations to China (which had previously been subject to an annual congressional vote) and in 2001 to admit China to the WTO, lessening the ability of the United States to deploy protective tariffs against China.
Though we normally think of the Communist-ruled Vietnam as an autocratic country, it too has politics — and it even has elections.
Vietnam’s messy politics have been on a rare, full display over the course of the past month in the lead-up to this week’s 12th party congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam). Vietnam’s ruling party will elect a central committee of between 160 and 180 members, a smaller politburo of 16 members and, from among the politburo’s ranks, the party’s general secretary, Vietnam’s president and Vietnam’s prime minister.
It’s as if the United States were selecting, in one eight-day period, the American president, vice president, executive cabinet chiefs and congressional leadership, in a secret conclave of elite gatekeepers.
But it is also a series of elections among discrete actors with divergent interests, and that’s led to some high-stakes politicking in the last month. Though just 1,510 delegates are voting in the current party congress, they represent a membership of 4.5 million Vietnamese. That’s just a fraction of the 91.7 million people that comprise Vietnam’s population, but it’s notable that the selection process has left some room for surprise.
The most audacious, perhaps, has been the tussle for power at the top, with outgoing prime minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng gunning for the most powerful position — general secretary. The current general secretary, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, however, has been less than enthusiastic about ceding the role after just five years in the office, and international analysts had thought Dũng’s elevation as general secretary more likely than not throughout 2015.
Given that Dũng is essentially term-limited as prime minister, the only options for him seemed to be up — or out.
So after a series of internal machinations, Dũng seems now out of a job — and out of both of the central committee and the politburo after a decade serving as prime minister. An unofficial rule that Vietnam’s top party brass retire after age 65 means that both Trọng (age 71) and Dũng (age 66) were never likely to remain long at the top echelons of party leadership. But it’s a disappointment for a man that businessmen and global outsiders, in particular, had come to regard as the best of Vietnam’s ruling Communists.
In his decade as prime minister, Dũng developed a reputation as relatively reformist and pro-Western. His tenure coincided with a wave of liberalization both at home and in Vietnam’s international relations. Shortly after taking power in 2006, Dũng oversaw Vietnam’s formal accession to the World Trade Organization, and he has been a leading proponent of Vietnam’s participation in ongoing negotiations to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which could bring greater economic development and middle-class job opportunities to Vietnam, a country that still depends on much of its income from coffee (it’s the world’s largest exporter), rice and cheap manufacturing.
Though the country also resolved a long-simmering border dispute with China, Dũng has generally improved US-Vietnamese bilateral relations in a bid to contain China’s influence, and Trọng himself even traveled to Washington for the first time since the two countries ended their bloody Cold War-era conflict in the mid-1970s. US president Barack Obama is even expected to visit Hanoi in May, one of the highlights of his final year in office.
Hard-line conservatives within Vietnam’s ruling party may be thrilled to see Dũng sidelined, which clears the way for Trọng’s reelection as general secretary, though even that is not certain until the party congress ends on Thursday. It’s reasonable to expect that Trọng may not serve until the next party congress expected in 2021, when he will be 76 years old.
But Dũng’s reputation as a reformer has always been somewhat less than consistent. Reforms during Dũng’s premiership did not extend to political liberalization, and internet censorship worsened with new regulations in 2013 forbidding online discussion of political events. While Vietnam today feels less like an authoritarian police state than North Korea or even the People’s Republic of China, Dũng’s government cracked down on dissidents and democracy activists in several high-profile incidents. Moreover, Dũng has championed large, public-sector behemoths that critics have argued facilitate widespread corruption within the party system — corruption that, they allege, also extends to the prime minister’s family. Indeed, Dũng’s star dimmed somewhat in 2010 after a state shipbuilding company, Vinashin, was nearly bankrupted amid allegations of profits being skimmed for personal gain.
But for a country as opaque as Vietnam, with one of the world’s few old-school communist governments, Trọng’s apparent resilience could be a signal for the country’s future policy direction. It may mean that Vietnam’s ruling elites believe even limited reforms under Dũng were too much and too soon, though TPP accession will require Vietnam to lock in its commitment to rule-of-law reforms and the kind of deeper liberalization and privatization that it has so far shunned.
Or it may mean that the delegates didn’t want to deliver too much power to a prime minister who’s been developing a growing profile for a decade as the country’s most respected leader abroad and who could wield extraordinary power as general secretary, thereby upsetting the balance in Vietnam’s government-by-consensus model.
Or it may mean that party leaders do not want to promote someone whose relatively hawkish tone on China has pulled Vietnam closer to the United States and away from their mutual Communist allies to the north. After all, China still wields significant economic influence over Vietnam.
Or it may mean that delegates and the central committee are eager to pass the leadership (including, eventually, the top position of general secretary) to a younger generation, just as Dũng’s rise in 2006 marked a transition to a postwar generation of party officials.
Or it may mean very little at all, other than a contest of personalities. Given the decades-long push to open Vietnamese markets on ‘Chinese-style’ state capitalist lines, the most likely outcome is that neither Trọng’s reelection or Dũng’s victory means much to Vietnam’s long-term trajectory.
What we will know by the end of the week, when the party congress concludes on January 28, is the following:
the new members of the politburo, expected to see significant turnover due to the retirement of many of the current members now over age 65;
the new prime minister, perhaps another young reformer, though the frontrunner for now seems to be Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, age 61, a current (if low-ranking) member of the politburo, one of four deputy prime ministers and not particularly close to Dũng;
a new president (today it’s a mostly ceremonial role) to replace the retiring Trương Tấn Sang; and
whether Trọng will stay on as general secretary, though we will not necessarily know about any deals that could see Trọng step down between now and the expected 13th party congress.
Those appointments, which will be duly ratified by Vietnam’s National Congress later this year as a formal matter, will not necessarily tell us so much about where Vietnam may or may not be headed. But the extenuated tussle between Dũng and Trọng, far more open and public than any before it (and more public than any fight for the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership, for example) shows that there is real political competition in Vietnam, even at its top levels.
There are a lot of reasons to be cynical about the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Like most multilateral trade deals, it seems to bring with it all of the ‘warts and barnacles’ that always seem to accompany these kinds of trade deals:
Complex enforcement mechanisms (like ISDS) sometimes seem to threaten to override national sovereignty.
Agreements too often fail to address poor labor and environmental standards in the developing world and, when they do, enforcing more equal standards is difficult.
Ignoble compromises over intellectual property force higher prices for life-saving drugs throughout the developing world and benefit Hollywood at the expense of locally produced culture.
In a globalized world where the World Trade Organization reduced many tariffs to nearly zero over the last half-century, free trade deals too often fail to liberalize non-tariff barriers to trade, at least to the extent that proponents might prefer, especially in the most highly protected industries like agriculture and services.
Hillary Clinton, who often championed the TPP when she served as the Obama administration’s secretary of state, came out againstthe trade deal last week, citing the protections for pharmaceutical companies and the lack of mechanisms that deal with potential currency manipulation. Those are odd reasons, though, as many analysts have noted, and her opposition comes after sustained support for the trade deal when she was in office. If anything, the protections for drug companies are far lower than those companies sought (just five to eight years of protection instead of the 12 years that the United States originally wanted). Moreover, currency manipulation has never particularly been an issue of focus in multilateral trade deals, and it’s doubtful that the US government could have won any serious concessions on currency, even if it tried.
Generally speaking, even if you dislike the TPP’s ‘warts and barnacles,’ there’s still a strong theoretical basis for freer trade. But there’s an even more important reason to support the TPP.
No country stands to gain more from the benefits of free trade and liberalization than Vietnam. As Tyler Cowen eloquently wrote in April for Marginal Revolution:
It has large numbers of state-owned enterprises, and its policies toward such enterprises could use more transparency and predictability, as indeed TPP would bring. Most generally, Vietnam is not today a free country. Bringing Vietnam into TPP would further ensure their attachment to a broadly liberal global trading order. TPP also would bring free(r) labor unions to Vietnam.
Other analysts agree, and there’s a growing consensus that Vietnam will be among the top winners if TPP becomes a reality. With tariffs on garments and footwear set to fall to zero under the TPP, Vietnamese exports will get a boost in the United States at the expense of China and even other free-trade partners like Mexico, because labor costs are still lower in Vietnam. That will help Vietnam maintain its advantage for low-cost manufacturing, even as multinational companies look to even lower labor costs in Laos and Cambodia. Moreover, despite challenges ahead, a widely cited analysis by the Petersen Foundation identified Vietnam as the country with the most to gain from the TPP:
Vietnam would face significant challenges in implementing an agreement that requires stringent disciplines in areas such as labor and government procurement. It also faces tough challenges in maintaining a macroeconomic environment that permits adjustment and encourages long-term investments. But overall, Vietnam’s participation in the agreement is well-founded.
TPP will, accordingly, increase the diversity of Vietnam’s trading partners and reduce its economic reliance on China. When the Obama administration talks about the benefits of TPP in strategic or even military terms, this is one of the most important points — TPP will lessen China’s hold on the southeast Asian economy, at least in the short term, both to the benefit of countries like Vietnam (as well as Malaysia and even more developed countries like Japan and Singapore).
Greater trade between the United States and Vietnam, and greater trade between Vietnam and the European Union, pursuant to another free-trade agreement concluded earlier this year, is expected to increase foreign direct investment in Vietnam, which could help develop a more high-tech and services-based economy and a more educated workforce.
Moreover, arguably no country in the world has suffered more at the hands of US incompetence during a war that today seems as pointless as it was brutal. From the My Lai massacre to carpet-bombing and the gratuitous use of napalm, the US-led war in Vietnam in the 1960s and the 1970s didn’t even accomplish its goal of keeping south Vietnam free of communism. The Cold War mentality at the time skewed the nature of Ho Chi Minh’s original struggle, initially more about self-determination and nationalism than about communist ideology. No one today would argue that the war was worth the sacrifices of US forces, the South Vietnamese or the North Vietnamese.
With TPP, the United States has a chance to ameliorate some of those harms. It was Clinton’s husband who restored normal relations with Vietnam in 1995, and it was Republican George W. Bush who facilitated Vietnam’s WTO entry in 2007. Pulling Vietnam, through TPP, into the global mainstream economy is the next logical step in reducing poverty in a country that’s growing at an estimated 6% this year, and Goldman Sachs, for example, predicts that the Vietnamese economy will surge from $186 billion (the world’s 55th largest) to $450 billion by 2025, making it the world’s 17th largest.
Accordingly, here are 14 possible game-changers — they’re not predictions per se, but neither are they as far-fetched as they might seem. No one can say with certainty that they will come to pass in 2014. Instead, consider these something between rote predictions (e.g., that violence in Iraq is getting worse) and outrageous fat-tail risks (e.g., the impending breakup of the United States).
There’s an old album of small pieces conducted by the late English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, a delightfully playful album entitled Lollipops that contains some of the old master’s favorite, most lively short pieces.
Think of these as Suffragio‘s 14 world politics lollipops to watch in 2014.
The official result is that the governing Cambodian People’s Party (CPP, គណបក្សប្រជាជនកម្ពុជា) of prime minister Hun Sen, who has held power in the landlocked southeastern Asian country of nearly 15 million since 1985 in one form or another, won 49.36% of the vote and 67 of the seats in the 123-member Rotsaphea, or National Assembly (រដ្ឋសភាជាតិ). The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP, គណបក្សសង្រ្គោះជាតិ), led by Sam Rainsy, who returned to Cambodia days ago to lead the campaign, won 44.34% of the vote and 56 seats.
Polling day was also plagued by allegations of cheating. Indelible ink, which is designed to prevent people from voting more than once, washed off easily. Names were left off voter lists and there were unsubstantiated claims that Vietnamese were being brought in from across the border to vote for the CPP.
The Vietnamese issue, in particular, is murky. Vietnamese migrants comprise nearly 5% of Cambodia’s population, and the CPP has made it relatively easy for Vietnamese migrants to come to Cambodia, where the Vietnamese overwhelmingly support the CPP and Hun Sen’s government, and Rainsy and the CNRP have campaigned against Hun Sen’s longtime cozy ties to the Vietnamese government as well.
The rather unsatisfying answer is that we probably will never know the real outcome of Cambodia’s election, just like we don’t know whether the opposition won the Malaysian elections earlier this year or whether Henrique Capriles actually defeated Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela’s April presidential election or whether Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosyan actually won February’s presidential election. In all four cases, there are credible accusations by the opposition that the governing party perpetrated varying degrees of fraud or other actions that made the elections somewhat less than free and fair. But there’s also a strong case that the government enjoys a wide berth of legitimate support.
So the truth is somewhere in the unknowable space between — unknowable not just to generalist observers like me, but even among Cambodia’s political elite, because a thorough audit of each vote is unlikely to happen, despite Rainsy’s calls for an independent committee to review the vote.
Where does that leave the opposition? In a surprisingly good position for the next five years, so long as they can maintain unity.
After all, 56 seats is a vast improvement on the 29 seats that the CNRP held prior to the vote, and it will function as a bona fide opposition party in the National Assembly. Though the CPP will continue to boast the simple majority that it needs to pass legislation, it won’t have the two-thirds majority it needs to singlehandedly call a quorum of the National Assembly, which will give the CNRP real power to direct what happens within the Cambodian parliament. It also means that the CPP will not be able to singlehandedly amend Cambodia’s constitution.
And the election’s result has inadvertently scrambled the CPP’s long-term plans. Due to the nature of the proportional representation system used to elect the National Assembly, many of the more senior members of the CPP were ranked higher on party lists and therefore retained their seats. In contrast, the seats that the CPP lost all would have otherwise gone to the younger generation of CPP leadership. That includes the prime minister’s 31-year-old son, Hun Many (pictured above, center, with his father at right), who was in many ways his father’s surrogate campaigner throughout the election. So at a time when the CPP will face significant pressure to generate new ways of governing Cambodia, least of all with respect to economic policy, the party will have retreated to its geriatric core, its leadership based on the same networks of patronage that’s fueled its hold on power for the past five years.
One thing that Rainsy will not be tempted to do is join any form of power-sharing coalition with the CPP. Rainsy need look no further for a cautionary tale than that of FUNCINPEC, a royalist conservative party that had actually won the largest number of seats in the 1993 election. FUNCINPEC joined a turbulent and controversial alliance with the CPP following the 1993 election, with Norodom Ranariddh, the son of a former Cambodian king, who served as co-prime minister with Hun Sen. Factional fighting among the two parties came to a head in 1997, when until Hun Sen ousted Ranariddh in what is now seen as essentially a coup. FUNCINPEC lost seats in the following 1998 election, and it kept losing more support in each subsequent election, and it finally lost on Sunday the final two seats that it had held in the previous National Assembly.
There’s every reason to believe that in a free and fair election on Sunday, Cambodians might choose Sam Rainsy as their next prime minister.
The opposition leader returned to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, to much fanfare last week after four years self-exiled in France to boost the chief opposition party’s hopes to win power in Cambodia, having been granted a royal pardon for the various crimes that the Cambodian government had alleged against Rainsy, a former finance minister who’s been Cambodia’s chief opposition figure for nearly two decades.
Though he has not been allowed a spot on the ballot in Sunday’s vote, the timing of his return left the opposition riding a crest of optimism that the election would see them to their best result in nearly three decades of rule by longstanding prime minister Hun Sen.
Despite gains for the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP, គណបក្សសង្រ្គោះជាតិ), a merger of what used to be known as the ‘Sam Rainsy Party’ and the Human Rights Party, another small party formed in 2007 to promote liberal rights and democracy in Cambodia, Rainsy’s newly unified efforts seem destined to come up short after Sunday’s elections. Instead, Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP, គណបក្សប្រជាជនកម្ពុជា) is set to cruise to a fifth consecutive reelection — Hun Sen, who has held power in Cambodia in some form since 1985, came to power with the support of the Vietnamese military upon the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime that, in four years, managed to kill 25% of the Cambodian population in its attempt to impose a communist state in the southeast Asian nation. Hun Sen’s ties to Vietnam remain strong to this day — critics would say Hun Sen remains subservient to Vietnam’s leaders. Regardless, the cozy ties are chief among the list of complaints that Rainsy and the CNRP has articulated throughout the campaign.
Sunday’s election will determine the 123 members of Cambodia’s Rotsaphea, or National Assembly (រដ្ឋសភាជាតិ), and it seems almost certain that the Rainsy and the CNRP will improve on their previous effort in July 2008, when the CPP won 90 seats and the two constituent parties of what is today the CNRP won just 29 seats.
It’s useful, to some degree, to compare Cambodia’s vote to elections in another southeastern Asian country earlier this year — Malaysia.
Despite their proximity, the histories of the two countries are, of course, very different. Malaysia is a country divided by ethnicity (Malay, Chinese and Indian), it was shaped mostly by British colonial institutions and post-colonial Chinese entrepreneurship, and its experience has been mostly steady economic growth for nearly a half century. Cambodia, although much more homogenous ethnically (nearly 90% Khmer) has had a rougher time since achieving independence from France in 1953: drawn into the quagmire of Cold War geopolitics during the war in neighboring Vietnam, divided by civil war in the 1970s, and still haunted by the brutality of Pol Pot’s regime after the communist Khmer Rouge took power from 1975 to 1979.
But in both cases, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that elections are fraud-ridden and not exactly fairly contested; in both cases, there’s also a realistic case that the ruling parties have such a deep-rooted base of support that their genuine reelection can’t be necessarily dismissed out of hand. In the case of Malaysia, prime minister Najib Razak and the Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) have long depended on support of the bumiputera, the ethnic Malay majority by using government to provide ethnic Malays preferential treatment. In the case of Cambodia, Hun Sen’s support derives from his reputation as the man who brought peace to a war-weary Cambodia, then launched the country on its path toward economic growth by transitioning from a planned economy to a market economy in 1995. As The New York Times reported earlier this week, even former Khmer Rouge militants now support Hun Sen.
From the U.S. Department of State comes this photo of U.S. secretary of state John Kerry toasting Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang, who is visiting Washington, D.C. and met earlier today with U.S. president Barack Obama.
For Americans (and Vietnamese) of a certain era, the fact that Vietnam’s president, who was a member of Vietnam’s ruling Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam (Vietnamese Communist Party) in the late 1960s during the U.S. military intervention to support allied South Vietnam against the Communist North Vietnam, and Kerry, a veteran of the U.S. war in Vietnam, would be standing side by side toasting one another in Washington, D.C., is incredible.
Kerry, a former Democratic senator from Massachusetts, along with fellow Republican senator and former Vietnam veteran John McCain, was instrumental in normalizing U.S. relations with Vietnam in 1995, over 20 years after the U.S. withdrew from the region. The North Vietnamese quickly overwhelmed the South Vietnamese resistance and consolidated Communist Party rule in Vietnam’s entirety by 1976.
In recent years, Vietnam has emerged as one of southeast Asia’s leading economic performers.
Truong Tan Sang, who was jailed by the South Vietnamese government between 1971 and 1973, has been a leading member of the Vietnamese Communist Party since the 1990s, and formally became leader of the party and the Vietnamese president in summer 2011.
Now that the House of Lords has approved changes to the same-sex bill in Parliament in the United Kingdom, same-sex marriage is set to become a reality in England and Wales (a separate Scottish bill is set to follow) under Conservative prime minister David Cameron.
That follows the final enactment of same-sex marriage in France earlier this summer — though the center-right and far right have vocally opposed it, the Assemblée nationale passed the measure with ease in June, fulfilling one of president François Hollande’s key campaign promises.
Great Britain (once Scotland joins) will become the 14th nation-state to have enacted legal same-sex marriage, joining France and eight other European countries,* as well as Argentina, Brazil, Canada and South Africa. That doesn’t include México City or the 13 states (and the District of Columbia)** in the United States that have enacted marriage equality, which comes with the full set of rights and privileges of federal law following the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Windsorthat rules the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. Last month, Germany’s constitutional court delivered same-sex partnerships a key victory by ruling that they are entitled to the same tax rights as other married couples.
So what’s the next horizon in what’s become a global fight for LGBT rights and marriage equality?
Probably not what you were thinking, right? After all, Asia has not typically been the most hospitable battleground for LGBT rights.
Moreover, Vietnam is a socialist republic and a one-party state ruled by a party, the Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam (Vietnamese Communist Party), that’s been enshrined through Vietnam’s constitution as the sole organ of political affairs since 1975, when North Vietnam formally overran South Vietnam, thereby uniting the entire country under communist rule. The Vietnamese government is repressive on just about every other vector — press freedom, internet freedom, and of course, the kind of political freedom that would allow a challenge to the governing elite. Though the country has been transformed economically as its one-time Marxist roots have been eroded into a more state capitalist approach, and its top destination for exports is now the United States (relations between the two countries have now been normalized for nearly two decades), the zeal for liberalization hasn’t met with the same enthusiasm in other quarters.
Vietnam is most well-known internationally for its economic growth — it’s a ‘Next Eleven‘ country and, while its GDP growth has slowed in recent years, it’s still poised to become a breakout economic power in southeast Asia. It’s also a party to the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations that could ultimately establish a free-trade zone among the United States and other South American and Asian countries.