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By Lien Hoang
The year’s biggest gathering yet of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation nations will present a chance for negotiations this month of a reincarnated Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact scorned by the U.S. but gaining steam since March.
TPP delegates will talk over breakfast in Hanoi on May 21, at the tail end of a laundry list of APEC meetings that kick off in the coming week and aim to win back hearts and minds that have turned cold to globalization. The trade agreement’s newfound momentum has reclaimed attention from a rival deal that, unlike the TPP, includes China and India.
“Definitely from the Malaysian perspective the government has signaled that they want a deal and are quite optimistic,” Patrick Tay, who was commissioned by Kuala Lumpur to write a 300-page analysis of the TPP, told Bloomberg BNA on May 5.
The APEC senior officials’ meeting and related meetings, to be held in Hanoi, start May 9.
Officials think a dynamic agreement could “force the U.S. to come back to the table,” said Tay, an executive director at PwC Malaysia. U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the TPP in January, responding to a workforce jaded by trade.
Vietnam said two solutions to help dislocated workers—inclusive trade and adaptation to technology—are its priority as the APEC chair for 2017. The agenda is chock-full of words that showcase a warmer image of trade, including “sustainable,” “social equity” and “shared” prosperity.
Trade ministers from the 21 APEC states will discuss internet commerce, supply chains, supporting industries and an APEC free trade deal May 20-21.
A portion of them also will join the TPP breakfast held by Vietnam and New Zealand, which hosted the TPP signing last year when there were 12 nations. Tay, a former government adviser to Auckland, said officials in New Zealand told him they’re ready to wrap up a “TPP 11.” Japan and Canada also have put forward their names to lead the pact and fill the void left by the U.S. Canada organized TPP 11 talks last week, after Chile assembled members in March.
Months earlier, the arrival of Trump triggered trade uncertainty not just for the TPP but also for APEC. Washington used to make its presence felt at these multinational summits, but it has been more aloof since the presidential transition, according to one attendee at the last APEC rendezvous, in the Vietnamese beach town of Nha Trang in March. U.S. officials admit they are pulling back somewhat, until clearer policies take shape.
Vietnam was once the most ardent advocate of the TPP, which was forecast to boost its clothing and shoe sectors more than any other industry in any country. But some see Hanoi now turning to a free trade agreement (FTA) with the U.S. to redeem those benefits.
“What the Vietnamese had in TPP, they transport it to a bilateral FTA,” said Vu Tu Thanh, Vietnam representative for the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, which works with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “From my perspective, they should focus more on a bilateral with the U.S. because they already have bilaterals with the other TPP members.”
One official said the U.S. would focus on such two-way deals while at APEC. A side meeting that excludes the U.S. will bring together representatives of a trade accord that rivals the TPP—the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, likely May 21-22. The RCEP centers largely on cutting tariffs, while the TPP covers labor rights, environmental protection, disputes between companies and states, and intellectual property.
Besides governments, corporations also will be flocking to northern Vietnam for the dozens of APEC events in May, including Google, General Electric Co. and Dow Chemical Co.
“As business, we have been a strong supporter of the process, engaging in key issue areas such as trade, energy and the chemical dialogue,” Dow Vietnam General Director Tomo Sasama told Bloomberg BNA. He said Dow will join the trade ministers forum and the concluding APEC summit in November, which Trump also said he would attend.
Trump’s attendance had been in doubt because of his hostility to trade. Supporters of Trump, as well as Brexit, blamed foreign competition for job losses, though economists say efficient technology accounts for the majority of layoffs.
Vietnam expects both trends to figure into APEC talks, which typically lead to proposals that members adopt voluntarily.
“In some corners, we are hearing concerns that the benefits of globalization are not evenly distributed,” Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son said after the APEC meeting in March. “New disruptive technologies, if not properly harnessed, run the risk of widening development disparity among economies.”
He said APEC will promote trade that “won’t leave anyone behind.”
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