Why Prefer Trade Status Quo, Obama Asks TPP Critics

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By Lien Hoang

May 24 — People afraid of losing jobs and market share to foreign countries should embrace a pending trans-Pacific trade deal, President Barack Obama said May 24, rather than sticking to the status quo and opposing his signature trade effort.

Obama said the U.S. economy is more open than other nations, but the Trans-Pacific Partnership would reduce these imbalances.

“If you're dissatisfied with the current trade arrangements, where tariffs are placed on U.S. goods, and other people's goods are already coming into the U.S., why would you want to just maintain the status quo?” he said during a swing through Vietnam, one of the 12 countries participating in the trade pact. “Why not change it?”

‘Suspicious of Trade.’

The president expressed sympathy with Americans who'd become gun-shy about trade after seeing businesses close and move abroad. He referenced China and Mexico as two common destinations blamed for the relocation of U.S. enterprises.

“People became suspicious of trade and worried that if we do TPP, then the same pattern will repeat itself,” Obama said.

But he argued that the Pacific trade agreement would benefit the U.S. by opening up foreign markets.

Obama was addressing entrepreneurs and others living in Ho Chi Minh City, the economic hub of Vietnam. He told the 50 or so attendees that the TPP would benefit them, too, through intellectual property safeguards, lower tariffs, good labor standards and other changes favoring entrepreneurship.

‘Less Gray Hair.’

With one leg propped up on his wooden chair, Obama appeared relaxed and engaged as he chatted with three business leaders who joined him on a small stage. He joked with the crowd, even when complaining about political rivals stalling U.S. approval of the TPP agreement.

“The bad news is politics in the United States is not always…,” he said, taking one of his trademark pauses. “Uh, how would I put it – reasonable.”

He added, “I would have a lot less gray hair if Congress was working effectively.“

The administration is urging Congress to take up the TPP prior to the Nov. 8 elections, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said that any TPP bill would probably have to wait until the lame-duck session. McConnell, who opposes the exclusion of tobacco products from the TPP's investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, more recently said the outlook for TPP passage anytime soon is “bleak.” The ISDS mechanism allows investors to bring claims against countries based on commitments in trade agreements to international tribunals (88 ITD, 5/6/16).

Online Entrepreneurship

Plenty of entrepreneurs don't feel affected by the trade deal, which was signed by Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore, the U.S. and Vietnam.

Le Hong Minh, co-founder of Vietnamese Internet giant VNG, told Bloomberg BNA after the event that he didn't pay much attention to the deal.

“We don't need the TPP for the Internet. It's already open,” he said.

But Microsoft Legal and Corporate Affairs Director Khoa Pham found some aspects of the trade pact helpful to his sector. Pham sat across from Obama on the stage, which was decorated with colorful drawings connoting innovation, from a USB drive to a book collection.

One of Pham's concerns is the transfer of data across borders. He told Bloomberg BNA he wouldn't want Vietnam to go from country to country, negotiating different data-sharing arrangements.

“We need a trade agreement with different jurisdictions that will allow for the transfer of information back and forth,” he said, “that will facilitate the export and import of information.”

The TPP chapter on electronic commerce would allow this data to move freely among the dozen member countries. Regulators typically juggle two priorities: letting companies transmit data offshore, while also securing the private details of customers and staff.

First Vietnam Visit

Obama flew to Ho Chi Minh City from the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, where he gave a public speech touting the merits of trade, shared pork noodles with CNN's Anthony Bourdain, met dissidents and lifted the U.S. arms embargo on Vietnam (100 ITD, 5/24/16).

On his third and final day in Vietnam, March 25, the president will talk to locals about his Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative before jetting off to Japan for the Group of Seven leaders summit.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lien Hoang in Ho Chi Minh City at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jerome Ashton at jashton@bna.com

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