Complex US Politics Of Trade Will Follow Obama To Asia

The president's overarching message about trade will be to embrace, rather than fear, globalization.

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

When Republican Donald Trump complains about unfair trade partners, he often singles out Vietnam — "hot as a pistol right now" and "the new one just killing us."

And when Democrat Bernie Sanders warns about the perils of global trade deals, he rarely misses a chance to say Americans shouldn't have to compete against Vietnamese workers earning 65 cents an hour.

But when President Barack Obama talks up the benefits of new trade deals, he holds out commerce with Vietnam as an example of the potential benefits of globalization.

Those complex politics of trade — casting Vietnam as trading bad-boy or target of opportunity — will be in the spotlight next week as Obama visits Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to push a trans-Pacific trade deal that would cover nearly 40 percent of the global economy.

Vietnam is the first stop on a weeklong Obama trip designed to showcase the president's commitment to the Asia-Pacific region and to strengthen ties to fast-growing Asian economies in what Obama says is "an age of global supply chains, and cargo ships that crisscross oceans, and online commerce that can render borders obsolete."

On his 10th trip to the Asia-Pacific region as president, Obama also will participate in a summit of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations in Japan's Ise-Shima region and make a historic visit to Hiroshima, seven decades after the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb there that ushered in the nuclear age. Obama will be the first sitting president to visit Hiroshima.

The president's overarching message about trade — embracing rather than fearing globalization — will be competing against counter-programming in the cacophonous 2016 presidential campaign to select his successor. Trump's denunciations of "stupid" U.S. trade deals that hurt U.S. workers have been a big selling point in his successful march to the brink of the GOP presidential nomination.

Sanders and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton also oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, although Sanders is far more vocal about it than Clinton. Sanders argues that international trade deals are set up to benefit corporate America at the expense of U.S. workers "forced to compete against people in Vietnam today making a minimum wage of 65 cents an hour."

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, taking note of the heated trade debate in the presidential race, says many other countries, too, are "wrestling with reactions to globalization and fears of further globalization."

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

The administration's goal — and challenge — is to put those fears to rest by arguing that negotiators learned from the weaknesses in past trade deals and worked to make this one more robust in promoting high standards in labor, the environment and more, says Rhodes.

The 12-nation trans-Pacific trade deal was signed last February but ratification by Congress remains in doubt, with the heated political climate making congressional leaders reluctant to take the matter up even in the lame-duck session after the November elections. Japan, too, has been holding back on ratification, and keeping an eye out for movement in Washington. About 80 percent of the trade covered by the trans-Pacific deal would be between Japan and the U.S.

Vietnam, meanwhile, has been seen as a rising star among developing Asian nations, albeit with hiccups, offering huge potential for U.S. markets. The Vietnamese government forecasts its economy will grow between 6.5 percent and 7 percent a year for the next five years. The Obama administration sees big potential in what is now a lopsided trading picture: U.S. imports from Vietnam totaled nearly $38 billion in 2015, compared to U.S. exports to Vietnam of about $7 billion.

While Sanders argues against sacrificing U.S. jobs to low-wage workers in Vietnam and elsewhere, the Obama administration stresses provisions of the trade deal that would allow U.S. business and workers to compete more evenly with those in other nations. Vietnam has adopted some laws to improve legal protections for citizens and has agreed to allow independent labor unions, currently forbidden, under a labor agreement that takes effect once the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, is ratified.

Beyond the benefits of fairer trade, the White House says U.S. allies are watching the trade debate for evidence of a broader American commitment to the Asia-Pacific region at a time when Trump's talk of an "America first" foreign policy is all over the headlines.

"Many in Asia have come to think that maybe they can't depend on us, that we're withdrawing, and that feeling may be worse in this presidential election year, " says Professor Jeffrey Frankel of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "The international relations aspect of this is if we don't pass TPP, Asians are going to interpret it as a U.S. withdrawal from their region. And they're going to get closer to China."