As You Were Saying...Tool of trade: promoting freedom



By Jessica McWade*

Saturday, January 24, 2015


The Obama administration continues to push hard for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, which the U.S. has been negotiating with 11 other Pacific nations since 2008. The embattled deal is seen as a cornerstone of the president’s “pivot to Asia” and a bulwark against China’s restless economic and territorial ambitions, including Beijing’s own proposed trade deal for the region.

Longshot passage of the TPP would give the president a desperately needed political win that, ironically, could come with the support of some Republicans in Congress who rarely see a free trade deal they don’t like.

The still-developing pact has produced no shortage of controversies, however, such as the criticisms leveled by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other politicians about the lack of transparency in TPP negotiations. Add to these concerns over secrecy other contentious negotiations on currency manipulation, intellectual property, market access, agriculture and financial services and it would be difficult to imagine the successful completion of TPP any time soon.

The TPP represents much more than trade negotiations, however. The U.S., Australia, Canada and the other participating democracies are wasting a rare, once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that admission to the kind of club TPP represents brings with it at least minimum expectations for how member nations treat their own citizens. Vietnam is a critical case in point.

Vietnam entered the TPP negotiating framework in 2008 and hosted the 7th round of negotiations in 2011. In a perfect world, Vietnam deserves entry into all forums designed to integrate it into the global community. However, and this is a big “however,” the human rights violations of the administrations of President Truong Tan Sang, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, Secretary General of the Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong and their predecessors must be addressed prior to Vietnam’s participation in any finalized TPP. Sure, we can hear it now. TPP advocates will insist that trade waters not be muddied with inconvenient truths about political prisoners, human trafficking, freedom of the press and other messy subjects. Really? Shouldn’t we expect better of Vietnam and of ourselves?

Too much media in Vietnam remains state controlled. Here too, Hanoi fails to understand the relationship between free trade and free media.

Vietnam’s record in human trafficking is highly problematic, as well, though Hanoi is not without some improvement in recent years.

Freedom takes many forms. It’s not just about free trade. While Hanoi is stubbornly demonstrating improvement in some of these domains, if only for show, it remains perilously far from the minimum standards one should expect from a full-fledged TPP member. Vietnam is a great nation; its people are on the move and on the rise. Plus, it can be an ally of the United States in helping to counter Chinese aggression in the region. That is why it is imperative that the Obama administration and the other negotiating parties link Vietnam’s role in TPP to clear and unambiguous expectations about human rights performance. Otherwise, we will have surrendered among the very few forums in which the U.S. and fellow TPP democracies have any leverage to do so.



*Jessica C. McWade is a former president of the World Affairs Council of Boston and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She recently returned from extensive travels throughout Vietnam. “As You Were Saying” is a regular Herald feature. We invite readers to submit guest columns of no more than 600 words. Email to Columns are subject to editing and become Herald property.


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