In a recent Senate Finance Committee report, U.S. Trade Czar Robert Lighthizer opined that Vietnam must take action to curb its growing trade surplus with the U.S., including removing barriers to market access for U.S. companies.
While it is true that Vietnam’s trade surplus has grown significantly in 2019, much of it is the result of the trade war between the U.S. and China that has prompted importers to source from Vietnam as an alternative to China.
Rather than attempt to stunt Vietnam’s trade surplus through tariffs or other trade actions, Washington should be establishing alliances with countries in Southeast Asia as part of its quest to ensure balanced trade and market stability.
Lighthizer’scomments were in response to queries from the Committee and echoed previous statements made by White House administration officials who have identified Vietnam as one of several countries to watch with respect to trade activity. And while there hasn’t been a direct threat of imposing tariffs on Vietnamese imports, the recent implementation of a 400% duty on Vietnamese steel imports and the recent rhetoric in Washington regarding transshipment has many businesses nervous that their new safe haven may be the President’s next target for trade action.
Troublesome to United State Trade Representative (USTR) is that the surplus thus far in 2019 is already more than 30% higher than it was at this time last year, making Vietnam the leading nation in terms of percentage increase of import value in 2019.
Hastening trade imbalance
Washington has been at least somewhat complicit in hastening Vietnam’s growing trade surplus. Since the U.S. began imposing tariffs on China-origin goods, many U.S. companies (and some Chinese companies) have been looking to shift production to neighboring markets in Asia. A recent poll of U.S. companies by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in China showed that more than 40% of American companies with production in China were looking to move to a neighboring country if they hadn’t already done so. These include the likes of Dell, HP, Steve Madden, Brooks and others. Even non-U.S. companies, like Japan’s Nintendo and China’s own electronics giant TCL are looking to shift production out of China and into Vietnam.
Vietnam was an obvious choice for many of these manufacturers looking to circumvent Washington’s onerous tariffs. For years, Vietnam has been investing heavily in improving its roadway and port infrastructure, as well as augmenting its pool of high-skilled laborers so that it can attract large hi-tech giants. The advancements were well-timed to coincide with increasing wages and regulatory restrictions in China that were driving up costs and forcing foreign producers to look elsewhere for low-cost manufacturing alternatives. This was taking place well before the current administration in Washington began cracking down on China’s questionable trade practices.
To be fair, Washington does have some cause for complaint. It’s one of Asia’s worst kept secrets that Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand have become convenient transshipment hubs for Chinese companies looking to circumvent quotas and, more recently, tariffs by making minor tweaks in neighboring countries to products almost wholly manufactured in China and sending them along to the U.S. as “Vietnamese” or “Malaysian” exports. In the end, there is little monetary gain for Vietnam and much opportunity for reputational damage. Hanoi’s incentive for playing along is purely political; it wants to placate China, its much larger neighbor and regional hegemon.
Hanoi has already said it will crackdown on Chinese transshipments labeled as being of Vietnamese origin. Nikkei Asian Review is reporting the Vietnamese government is considering new rules that would require 30% of a good’s price to be comprised of Vietnamese manufacturing for it to be considered as being of Vietnamese origin. Whether or not this will pacify the USTR remains to be seen.
Yet while Chinese transshipments may have been a catalyst to Vietnam’s soaring trade surplus, the ongoing U.S-China trade war has unquestionably accelerated the development of a trend that was only in its infancy a few short years ago.
If Washington is looking to penalize Vietnam for a trade surplus born out of Washington’s trade war with Beijing, where will the cycle of tariffs end?
Options for low-cost sourcing plentiful
Let’s assume Washington succeeds in quelling the growth of Vietnam’s trade surplus by imposing tariffs in the same manner it has with China, the EU and other entities. The likely outcome will be that U.S. companies then look to Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh or Cambodia (as many have already) to replace or supplement their production in China.
Let’s assume that Washington then imposes similar tariffs on imports from those countries. The likely outcome will be that U.S. companies then shift their attention to India, Mexico or any other country that offer lower cost labor and limited regulatory burden. And on and on it goes.
Washington wants to see production repatriated back to the United States, but only six percent of American companies moving production out of China are looking at reshoring their manufacturing facilities. One of the key reasons is that the facilities currently in China are intended to support regional exports and reshoring production to the U.S. would result in unnecessary transport costs and time in transit. In other cases, the cost of moving production to the U.S. could be too onerous to allow companies to compete globally.
A battle worth waging – along with friends and allies
This is not to suggest Washington’s war on China’s unsavory trade practices is unjust or futile. On the contrary, China’s history of misappropriating intellectual property through technology transfer, cybersecurity incidents and other trade violations requires America to act. But tariffs only punish American companies that will continue to shift their production as necessary to reduce their landed costs.
Instead of reprimanding and punishing countries like Vietnam with tariffs in response to growing trade surpluses, Washington should be working with them to forge alliances that will ensure China is forced to play by the rules.
If the U.S. truly wants to stave off bad actors such as China from continuing to abuse the global trade’s rule-based system, it will need the support of friends and allies in the eastern and western hemispheres. Acting alone and imposing unilateral restrictions only throws Washington into a battle of wills for which collateral damage is certain, but the outcome remains unknown.
Cora Di Pietro is vice president of Global Trade Consulting at trade-services firm Livingston International. She is a frequent speaker and lecturer at industry and academic events and is an active member of numerous industry groups and associations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.