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Global Trade Talk: Navigating Geopolitical Currents in a Changing Southeast Asia

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Global Trade Talk: Navigating Geopolitical Currents in a Changing Southeast Asia

Global Trade Talk is part of an ongoing series highlighting international business, trade, investment, and site location issues and opportunities. This article focuses on the conversation between Simon Tay, Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Keith Rabin, President, KWR International, Inc.

Hello Simon. How have you been? Before we begin can you tell our readers about your background and current activities?

I am Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). We focus on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional organization comprised of ten countries in Southeast Asia, as well as the wider Asia Pacific and Singapore’s role as a hub for trade and investment and greater integration in the region. This includes a range of geopolitical issues including the rise of China, the role of the US, and most recently the coronavirus pandemic, which is serving as an accelerator for changes that have been occurring over the last decade.

Professionally, I am an attorney and was a member of Parliament from 1997-2001, serving during the Asian financial crisis. Then during the 2008 global financial crisis, I was stationed in New York at the Asia Society where we first met. These experiences have given me a unique perspective on the impact of globalization and other trends we have experienced over the past two decades.

While ASEAN currently possesses the third-largest economy in the Indo-Pacific and fifth largest in the world, many foreigners have never even heard of the regional group nor do they recognize its potential. Can you talk about how ASEAN evolved, what it represents as a commercial market and investment destination, and in terms of security and its global importance? What opportunities and obstacles and investment themes are of particular importance to foreign companies and investors in the coming years?

I don’t blame people for not knowing ASEAN. When one looks to Asia, one’s eyes are first drawn to the giants. China in particular has done very well over the past twenty years and no country has grown faster during that time. As it developed and labor costs and standards of living rose, Southeast Asia began to capture the attention of businesses, and deservedly so. ASEAN now has growing appeal, because of greater integration as we create an ASEAN Community with increased consumption and growth. That is why many people refer to us as the fifth largest economy in the world.

The reality, however, is a bit short of that – as we are not really one country or one system. We are, however, working to realize the “ASEAN 2025 Vision.” This is a roadmap adopted in 2015 to articulate regional goals to create a more cohesive ASEAN Community. SIIA is currently working on the ASEAN mid-term review, which is examining our progress, and how crises such as the pandemic can strengthen our will to more fully integrate. While an unfinished project, given the diversity in the region, it is — in some ways — every bit as ambitious as the establishment of the European Union (EU). The trend is toward closer integration.

Before the Asian financial crisis, which began in the summer of 1997, the region was mostly viewed, at least in the US, through the lens of the Vietnam War. Over the last twenty+ years we have advanced, however, and growth in ASEAN has been reinforced. This is true both in developed countries such as Singapore and Thailand, developing nations such as Vietnam and Myanmar, and those in between. Before the pandemic, ASEAN as a whole was growing at a faster rate than China. While the pandemic is hitting our people and economies hard, the region should still outperform the world.

The fundamentals are real. ASEAN is ascending from a lower base, leaving substantial room for further growth. There are many opportunities as countries raise consumption and leapfrog using software, digital innovation, and a greater online presence. Diverse sectors can do well, including labor-intensive manufacturing, infrastructure, services, consumer markets, and others that are part of the new economy.

As you note many people view ASEAN as being similar to the EU, a vehicle grouping together a group of countries into a more integrated market, though without a common currency. Is that fair and can you talk about both the diversity of ASEAN as well as the steps being taken to link these ten nations into a more cohesive entity? Is it possible for companies to have an “ASEAN strategy” or should they be looking at individual markets?

Given what I said about ASEAN, and how it is not yet a cohesive union, that is a very good question. The answer is yes and yes. Movement toward greater integration is very clear but we are not like China or the EU where you can put up one office and that’s it for the region. In a way, this is an economic strength as well as a political challenge.

In ASEAN you have an opportunity to link supply chains from a hub like Singapore, which offers first-class amenities, to less developed markets with eager and driven populations rising out of poverty and looking for jobs in factories and a more modern lifestyle. Myanmar for example is a sizable country with a pool of young people looking for jobs and a government seeking to develop. Myanmar also has a sizable expatriate population that has lived and worked in countries such as Singapore and Thailand, as well as Australia, Europe and the US, where they received education and training. Now their economies are opening – and they are returning with capacity, experience and ideas to implement change. So these countries are not starting from zero.

In between, you have countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Labor there remains hungry for work, the land is relatively cheap and demand is growing. Today, a lot of attention is focused on Vietnam in particular. This is a country of almost 100 million young, dynamic, and hard-working people, which is well on its way to becoming a competitive supply base for many products.

ASEAN also benefits from not being China. Our diversity offers a decentralized model that adds diversification to global supply chains. It can be more complex to work across ASEAN — there is no one President or government to go to – but it is also less risky for those who can manage across borders – as it is not a case where if one government or economy fails, then the investor also fails. Moreover, ASEAN is not a threat to anyone politically. Vietnam for example has a trade surplus with the US whereas Singapore has a deficit.

Those who invest in ASEAN benefit from having an alternative to China, though are still located in this growing region. This allows synergies with production clusters based there. Being in ASEAN allows companies and investors to benefit and participate in this growing regional economy without putting more eggs into the China basket.

You mentioned the US has enjoyed strong ties with ASEAN since its birth in 1967. This was a time when the US sought to develop regional allies in the face of the Vietnam and Cold Wars. Today, however, despite a move to initiate an “Asian Pivot” under the Obama administration and talk of the “Indo-Pacific” under President Trump, some question US commitment to the region. How do you view the US presence and role within ASEAN? What should US companies and leaders know about ASEAN and how does their presence compare to other nations including Japan, Korea, Australia, and the EU?

The US remains an important partner and market for ASEAN and when looking at its involvement in the region, there are three strands we can talk about. The first is like an underlying current in the ocean, the second is the waves on top, and third like a bright object on the surface. If you look at the current, the destiny of the US remains very much an outward one. It is the country that created the modern world and global trading system you and I have grown up in. It was built to America’s advantage and I think this strong current of the US having shaped and benefitted from this world is ever-present despite current tensions. So we have not seen, whichever President, a lack of interest from US business, its military or security establishment. So whether you call it an Asian Pivot, Indo-Pacific region or before that the War on Terrorism, we believe this current can and should have reasons to continue.

At the same time, there are waves on the surface. These are more noticeable, as it is hard to see the underlying current unless you put your hand deep below. The waves do matter and I would say right now they are choppy and we are now going through a period where Americans are questioning globalization and retreating from multilateralism and international engagement. I was in Seattle during the 1999 WTO protests. At the time President Clinton had the political savvy to suggest we let these voices in to assuage concerns – even as he was the president who signed and implemented the NAFTA agreement. As a result, after a time, things calmed down and the situation became less tense for the moment.

Since then, however, the waves have gotten more turbulent, and it is important to recognize the tensions that brought Trump into office are not singular to him. Remember that Hillary Clinton responded to those choppy waves in her election bid. She supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement while Secretary of State, and yet as a candidate against Trump, she too expressed doubts about the TPP. So it is not just the Trump administration and we can see a wave of US constituencies questioning and expressing concerns.

The concern is rising to the point where now even the underlying current of outward movement that I mentioned is less visible. Companies are now being judged by how many jobs they are reshoring and their loyalty to America and American jobs. This is now seen as more important than an overall win-win growing the global economic pie paradigm, which has guided the thinking of policymakers and companies for decades.

And then there is the ball or float which can be seen in tweets and incendiary rhetoric. These attract a lot of attention and concern but they are not necessarily consistent. You mentioned the Indo-Pacific strategy and frankly, I haven’t really seen one. I have seen Indo-Pacific statements and senior US officials talking about issues, but I haven’t seen an overall strategy tying things together. I have to say I view this from an ASEAN perspective and generally, ASEAN is the final stop after a comprehensive strategy dealing with other parts of Asia is finalized.

There is also much less US involvement in multilateral institutions. This is important given the nature of the problems the world faces today. I also think the State Department itself has less access and the whole US establishment which has guided foreign policy and economic engagement, has been weakened.

At the same time other countries – and China in particular – have upped their game. They engage us, not only at the top level – but very thoroughly on an ongoing basis.  Ambassadors of these countries, whether you agree with them or not, are out all the time engaging people, and are much more present. The US is still here but less than in the past. Take something as simple as Ambassadors. How many ASEAN countries have sitting US Ambassadors? And if you talk with the ones that are here, how much access do they have into Washington and White House decision-making at a high level? Stove-piping is always a problem in big countries, but it is now becoming a more serious issue.

Since the early days of ASEAN, China has developed rapidly and has now become the world’s second-largest economy. It is also a major driver of economic growth and seeks greater regional and global influence through vehicles such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), at a time when the US is backing away from multilateral institutions and its traditional role as a global leader on a range of important issues. As tensions rise between China and the US, both in terms of trade as well as influence and security, how is the region affected, and what are the challenges ASEAN countries face in navigating this changing environment?

The pandemic makes a vast difference. We are trying to figure out in a post-pandemic world whether China or the US will recover faster and at the moment the answer seems to be China. It is still early, however, and of course, there is now an outbreak in Beijing so we will have to see. At the same time within China, there seems to be a growing understanding they need to remain engaged with the outside world. They also did not have this pre-pandemic spirit of isolationism and questioning of whether it is good for China to export and invest abroad. So unlike the US, they did not come into this with a globalization backlash, strengthened further by the pandemic.

Singapore recently entered into a “green lane” agreement with China for business travel and Singapore-based businesses of all nationalities can now travel to six cities and regions of China with minimal testing as a first step toward reopening our borders. This is not political but an effort to restore supply chain links and our ability to operate as a hub while maintaining decent safety levels. We are also trying to open Australia and New Zealand, and other countries in ASEAN, but those discussions are not yet concluded.

Also, if you look back to the global financial crisis of 2008, it is notable that Asia and China kept growing. While the US did not shrink, in relative terms its global market share declined. That caused an adjustment similar to when an elevator goes up and suddenly stops. I feel if the US does not respond correctly to the current situation, we may experience another of those adjustments; it doesn’t mean the US will fade and fall down the elevator shaft, but there will be another jerky moment and perceptions in this part of the world will shift further as they did after the onset of the global financial crisis.

That said, people in ASEAN want more US involvement and encourage US investment and more participation by US firms. We think of the market and technology as rational and neutral, but it is beginning to get colored. Meaning if people think the winner will be China there is a tendency to go more in that direction – even though we are still fighting to keep things as neutral, rational, and as inclusive as possible. You can see that in the struggle over the decision this week to award Singapore’s 5G network to Ericsson and Nokia, though it still maintained a smaller role for Huawei.

In the past, there was a belief in the west that China’s development would lead it toward a more democratic form of government and integration within the global trading system that arose following the Second World War. In recent years it has become apparent this is not the case and China is embarking on its own path. This has led to growing concerns about China’s aspirations and efforts to exert global leadership and establish standards in new technologies as seen its “Made in China 2025 initiative”, its policy toward Hong Kong and Taiwan, cybersecurity and privacy, social credit scoring and other policies, practices, and beliefs. Do you share these concerns? How does China’s model translate to ASEAN and do you see a new “Cold War” developing in which countries will be asked to choose sides?

I have studied, lived in, and like the US, but never assumed China would become more democratic. I believe the Party will have to evolve and change in response to China’s development but never assumed this would necessarily be in a democratic direction. When I look at the region beyond China, I would also say most in Asia are not a democracy in the US-style. Even look at Japan, which you Keith know well. It is not a one-party system like China but it is not a US-style democracy. Neither is Singapore. We will have an election here in less than two weeks, yet there is almost no doubt which party will win. So I am not sure you as an American would describe such systems as democracy.

So I do not look at China through an ideological lens of democracy and have always thought China would do what made sense for China. As neighbors, we do have to figure out whether what is good for China will be a threat to us, rather than win-win. This applies when we look at Chinese investment; we tend to look at it through pragmatic calculations. I do not begin with the assumption that it is an attempt to politically suborn every place where they invest. There are of course risks that remain but they can be managed. For example, with BRI we have talked to Myanmar and others about the risks of unproven projects that burden them with high debt. That is Singapore’s style. We initiate projects incrementally. We start with one terminal and gradually expand to five, or one chemical factory into a large complex as demand is proven. We have an idea of where we want to go – but build incrementally rather than start with grand projects.

That is why you now see a number of Singapore industrial parks in Vietnam. These parks are not just physical spaces. Some provide training, education, and skills development for local workers so they can better serve companies based there. This helps our neighbors while developing our role as a hub. Singapore companies are also involved in BRI. For example, Surbana Jurong provides consultancy services to some Chinese investors in ASEAN countries, as well as acting for the hosts on other occasions. The Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) is also pushing out into the region and beyond; recently opening a joint port in Greece with Cosco, a Chinese shipping line. So Singaporean efforts are to seek cooperation and commercial deals that look non-ideologically to support globalization and free trade around the world.

The bigger question is the “new Cold War” between the USA and China. We do feel it. We try to make rational decisions based on market principles but increasingly everything is reduced to whether “you are for or against China or the US.” For the AIIB, Singapore participated from the start because infrastructure is a big issue in the region. We are in the Asian Development Bank (ADB) too and the World Bank. We think there is no reason we can’t be in more than one, and I do not see why the US objected to the AIIB or what was the alternative they were offering. On the other hand, when American’s spoke about the Indo-Pacific we were happy to work with our ASEAN colleagues to develop an ASEAN understanding and response.

The view of the Indo-Pacific that ASEAN has developed is slightly different than the US, as our goal was to make it more inclusive and not just for democracies. But we do agree a larger framework for the region is necessary. For Singapore, as close friends with India, we have no problems working with them as well and continue to hope they will become more and more integrated with the region.

Even before the coronavirus and heightened US-China trade tensions, corporations were beginning to reevaluate global supply chains to lessen their reliance on Chinese production. Many view ASEAN as a natural beneficiary, offering cost and diversification benefits. As a result, we see many clients giving the region more consideration given its strategic location, strong infrastructure and its ability to bridge operations that had been based in China and still rely on inputs from there. How do you view ASEAN’s potential as the region rises in importance as a hub within the global supply chain? What are the prospects for developing and more developed countries in ASEAN– as well as integration between the two, for example, the relationship between Singapore and Batam/Bintan and the Riau Islands, where we have been active for many years, located in Indonesia only 12 miles away?

Our greatest fear is not a splintering of global supply chains but rather the idea of bringing everything back home in response to growing nationalism. Big countries sometimes think they can do that – whether it is the US, China, India, or even Indonesia. They believe they can produce everything for themselves and capture their own market. We used to see this in the “import substitution” and “beggar thy neighbor” days. That is something we need to work together to avoid. Post-pandemic there will be exceptions and a degree of self-supply is important, for example with masks and ventilators, to prevent a cut-off of supply. Similarly, markets such as Singapore which imports almost 100% of its food supply, need to rethink being completely reliant on offshore sourcing. But we need to make sure that tilt does not go too far.

But I would emphasize we are not going to exclude China either. The interesting question is whether we still believe in global supply chains. I think the answer is that we do, provided that security and other key concerns can still be addressed. If that is the case, countries that can provide that, who can reliably manage increasing supply chain complexity with good governance and rule of law, with an ability to deliver will be rewarded. ASEAN and Singapore are well-positioned in that regard.

The larger danger is that countries retreat back completely to a reliance on national production and protectionism. It is a lesser danger for supply chains to split into two, one being the US and the other a Chinese supply chain. Sometimes it is important for other countries to have guts and stand up against that and bullying from either side. This is especially important during the pandemic when some powerful countries were trying to grab masks and other medical supplies for themselves when these had been contracted to others. For Singapore, and for me as an attorney and international lawyer, I emphasize the importance of fulfilling contracts. This does not always work to our advantage in Singapore. Sometimes in the pandemic, neighbors cut off supply but we still try our best to observe our commitments. The rule of law is important. The bottom line is – trust is something you can’t ditch in a crisis.

You ask about Batam and Bintan as part of our strategy to expand across the region. These islands are part of Indonesia but stand just a small distance from Singapore. Back in the early 1990s, there was a lot of excitement in Singapore about their development as an early step in regionalization and cross border cooperation. They are still significant; proximity still matters, but not quite as much as before. Other opportunities arise, and regionalization has deepened. One newer aspect is whether that proximity is connected to another market.

For example, a major Singaporean company now has an industrial park operating in central Java that caters to Indonesia, rather than offshore markets like Batam and Bintan. Singapore also has more than seven industrial parks in Vietnam – and we do more there than in these Indonesian islands nearest us. Why? It is not because we do not like Batam and Bintan; they also have a role to play. But they do not enjoy any special preferences or contiguous market, have no natural workforce so workers there are imported from other parts of Indonesia. In the end, they remain useful, allow easy commuting, but do not provide a definitive advantage in an environment characterized by deeper and more complex regional integration.

ASEAN has been severely affected by the coronavirus – and by most measures handled the pandemic relatively well. Can you talk about how the virus has been handled in Singapore and other countries in ASEAN, the nature of regional cooperation, and how the pandemic is likely to affect economic and other aspects of integration moving forward? What lessons should the US take from the ASEAN experience dealing with the virus?

There are differences in how ASEAN countries have handled this and from what we can see, Vietnam has come out on top in terms of controlling the pandemic. In Singapore, the overall national numbers may look scary, but it is under control for most of the community though the problem is acute within the foreign work dormitories which account for the bulk of numbers.

Singapore has a strong health system and has ramped up testing and treatment facilities; our medical system has coped and there has been a very low mortality rate. Malaysia and Thailand are also doing relatively well. For Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar the numbers seem ok but it is really hard to know for sure, given low levels of testing. In Southeast Asia, I think the biggest worry is Indonesia where numbers are beginning to rise while the country faces strong economic pressure to reopen.

A key question is transparency. The more you test the more you find cases. So we look at testing rates as an indicator. In Singapore, we have good testing for a small population. As testing increased in dorms for migrant workers, this caused our numbers to really jump. It was just last week that Indonesia overtook us as having the most cases – and we have to ask why did it take that long? Basically, many countries are not testing enough. When they do test, it is for confirmed cases and not more generally – and the number of tests per million is very low. So from the reported numbers, the situation may look acceptable, but no one can be quite sure.

The current question is how to ease up the restrictions to restart the economy and allow travel across borders. There are worries about importing cases and all countries have at least temporarily closed off tourism, which are important parts of their economies. In the pipeline, I think green lanes for business are possible. But there will continue to be concerns about large numbers of tourists unless easy and reliable testing and (ideally) vaccines are ready. So we will have to figure out how to manage borders – allowing transport of workers as well as goods and services – to restart our economies and manage our integration and supply chains in an increasingly interdependent region.

One of the things we have learned is we have to be open to help from outside and cooperation is critical. In early February we first had a China-ASEAN meeting on how to deal with the virus and it was just China, but then we had an ASEAN Summit and this was notable in bringing in Japan and Korea – two countries that have the industry and technology needed to help. Now some of us are advocating Australia and New Zealand also need to be added as well. If we address the pandemic together – we have a much better chance of containing and dealing with it. Harmonizing our approaches to treatment and travel is important. Multilateral dialogue and cooperation are essential and world leaders should encourage talk rather than just closing borders.

India also represents a major economy that borders ASEAN and has traditionally had a major impact though often gets overlooked given the attention paid to China. What is your view on India as a regional and global player and how important is its economy to the development of ASEAN and how should companies be approaching this important market? Additionally, any thoughts on current tensions between India and China?

Last year before the pandemic we had the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) discussions which could potentially not only open up India but bring India more into the region as a major global manufacturer and supplier – much as China embarked on that path decades ago. RCEP’s importance rose after the US withdrew from TPP negotiations, and aimed to bring together all ASEAN members and our key trading partners — including India, Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. But it seems the Indians didn’t like that vision or thought the costs of opening up their market were too high and walked away.

They thought they could scupper the whole initiative, but ASEAN has decided to go ahead without them. That was not our hope and it would have been much better to include them, but we were not going to let India veto RCEP, and it will now proceed, aiming to conclude by the end of 2020. I always tell my Indian friends we have to move – particularly now with the pandemic – and they would be advised to jump on board.

India has tremendous potential and their size and promise will always be there – but it is a bit like a giant universe operating by itself – cut off from the outside. That is sad as there are some really top-class Indian companies that can more than compete in the region. But India as a whole has not really been fully engaged. The politics are complicated – and while Singapore remains great friends of India – it remains to be seen if a path forward can be found. If Prime Minister Modi with all the support he enjoys is not willing to open up, how and when will it happen? Compound that with the pandemic and a lack of desire to integrate, and my fear is India will miss the boat.

For Indonesia, the largest country in ASEAN, it’s different. They know investors are questioning reliance on China because of costs and Sino-American conflict and are working to catch the attention to join global chains and attract more investment to create more and better paying industrial jobs. They are trying but it won’t be easy. China has retained many supply chains, and many that moved decided to go to Vietnam.  One Indonesian minister I know quite well is working hard to attract jobs and promote innovation and some companies are moving to base there. The minister told me his scorecard is based on an ability to attract foreign investors and industry. It will be difficult, but it is good they are trying. India, however, has mostly been sitting on the sidelines and it may only get harder over time.

Singapore is one of the world’s great success stories and has become a preferred destination to establish businesses and operate for companies in a wide range of sectors, including as a world financial center. For many years we operated our own company there as a base for activities in Myanmar, Indonesia and other ASEAN markets which lacked the same level of infrastructure, governance and services. Does the Singapore model hold, and what changes need to be made, as neighboring countries develop? Can you tell us about current Singapore initiatives, the upcoming election and the “bubbles” that are being created for business, travel and trade?

Singapore understands we serve as a hub for the region and if we cut ourselves off due to the pandemic and health reasons, we will find ourselves in a bubble that does not have enough air for all of us. You can live your life that way if you need to, but resources become scarce and it will not be much of a life. So we have to reopen, and all small economies face similar issues. New Zealand for example is further away but faces similar decisions.

That is why we talk about green lanes and bubbles. We need to start but in a controlled way with trusted partners. In the past, we were wide open. When you entered Changi Airport, even before you got to the doors, they opened wide. There was seldom a line and often no one even checked your luggage. Now, while I have not been there in five months, I imagine the scanners are working overtime. You need to show a health certificate and the process is much more cautious and guarded.

My analogy is that we have gone from an automatic door and seamless travel to a situation that requires a special pass and perhaps a key before you will be able to pass. Safety concerns are a priority. But for Singapore, the important thing is the doors need to remain open even if there are more checks and verifications to ensure adequate safety and easy passage. Singapore is committed to that. The government just formed a new public-private partnership called the “Emerging Stronger Task Force”. This will gather ideas on how to develop new processes and procedures to get better ideas on Singapore’s economic strengths, and how to move forward into the “new normal” in the wake of the pandemic.

It won’t be easy. But when I look back, there is reason to believe we can rise to the challenges. Singapore came out stronger from the Asian financial crisis and we are determined to do that again. That was true after the global financial crisis as well. If we get it right, Singapore can come out stronger this time as well. Of course, we could get it wrong and have made mistakes along the way;  two recoveries do not automatically translate into a third so we have to be careful not to have hubris and to work hard and innovate to succeed.

As you know we have been active and involved with Myanmar’s development for many decades, and one of the more interesting developments – at least in terms of Singapore – are long term plans to develop deep seaports in Kyauphyu, which would provide a land route into China. This initiative would allow shippers to bypass the Straits of Malacca and the Port of Singapore which has long dominated trade in the region. How do you view Myanmar’s prospects and the potential of these projects?

Do we see other ports in the region as a direct threat to Singapore? The answer is no. We think win-win. Our ports are busy and before the pandemic operated almost at full capacity. If Asia continues to grow, the volume of traffic will grow even more. The PSA has been expanding internationally to places in the region and beyond. Moreover, within Singapore land is very valuable and there is a plan to create a new mega port named Tuas in the north of the island. The current site of one port is very close to the city and is such valuable land that, rather than stacking containers, far more value can be realized if it is used for real estate and infrastructure development. So while we do want Singapore to continue as a major port, this means that we welcome and want to participate in growth across the region.

As for Myanmar more generally, we are very encouraged and remain positive. We would love to see them come up like Vietnam. As mentioned, there are several Singaporean industrial parks there and while there are none are as yet in Myanmar – we have very good relationships there and see lots of potential. Many people from Myanmar received their education and training in Singapore and many Myanmar companies rely on Singapore for banking, legal and financial services. So there are extensive people-people relationships and we want to help and be part of their development. Also, two of the most active banks in Myanmar, UOB and OCBC are from Singapore and as Myanmar opens up and liberalizes they are seeking to increase their presence.

Thank you Simon for your time and attention. Look forward to speaking again soon!

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Keith Rabin serves as President at KWR International, Inc., a global consulting firm specializing in international market entry; trade, business, investment and economic development; site location, as well as research and public relations/ public affairs services for a wide range of corporate and government clients.

global supply

THE PANDEMIC DISRUPTED GLOBAL SUPPLY CHAINS BUT WERE THEY ALREADY MORPHING?

COVID-19 is disrupting the operation of global supply chains, causing many businesses (and countries) to rethink where they source their products. Is the pandemic accelerating trends already underway? Were trade policies – both liberalizing and protectionist – inducing some degree of “nearshoring” to avoid tariffs or to focus on regional trade made easier and less costly through free trade agreements?

In the case of the United States at least, the answer may be yes.

How Global Supply Chains Stretched

Supply chains encompass all the people, technology and resources that go into producing a final product or service. Supply “chain” is an oversimplified term as they are not linear; they are more like interconnected networks.

Historically, supply chains were extremely short – you, or maybe your village, were the entire chain. As economies grew more complex, so did supply chains, enabling more firms to specialize. Companies are now able to source from a wide variety of suppliers to reduce costs and improve efficiency.

Advances in communication technologies and transportation made it both inexpensive for products to cross national borders multiple times and easier to coordinate complex activities at a distance. Resources, labor and technological expertise in multiple countries are leveraged as value is added throughout global supply chains. International production strengthened many companies’ competitiveness. Many multinational companies also invested in production overseas as part of their supply chain strategies.

Stretched and Strained

As supply chains stretched, imports became increasingly important in the U.S. American manufacturers rely heavily on imports for the inputs into their American-made goods whether those goods are consumed domestically or ultimately exported.

For many years China has been the go-to for much of this intermediary production, with companies attracted to its large supply of low-wage workers and China’s specialization in certain manufacturing. The concentration of manufacturing in China has led to mounting concern over whether China is competing unfairly through subsidization, market access restrictions, technology transfer and localization requirements. These and other policies have attracted more manufacturing to China and away from both advanced economies like the United States and other low-cost producers in Asia, a trend that may be now reversing.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought this concern into sharp relief, sparking policy discussions over whether U.S. innovators and producers have become over-reliant on China for resources, inputs and final production. But even before the pandemic, the subtext of the U.S.-China trade war was U.S. pressure on companies to reexamine and “rebalance” the structure of their supply and production networks as incentivized by mounting tariffs.

And even before the tariff war heated up, businesses were seeking ways to shorten their global supply chains to reduce their vulnerability to external disruptions such as changes to trade rules, natural disasters, or other crises, according to a 2017 report by The Economist Intelligence Unit and Standard Chartered.

Has Global Value Chain Participation Peaked?

So now that COVID-19 has caused severe disruption to supply chains, the question on everyone’s minds is: will it cause a retreat in participation in global value chains? Or, was participation in global value chains already peaking before the pandemic and if so, will the pandemic hasten the decline?

We can calculate trends in global value chain (GVC) participation using the UNCTAD-Eora Global Value Chain (GVC) Database. Though supply chains and value chains are not exactly analogous, both show the spread of supply networks across countries. A country’s global value chain participation index can be calculated by summing the foreign value added (FVA) and the indirect value added (DVX) content of its exports, and dividing this by its gross exports.

The chart below shows participation in GVCs generally flattened out from around 2010-2012 after dipping in 2008. It does not show a retreat from global supply chain involvement (though India shows a slight decline). COVID-19 renders the future trajectory unpredictable.

Another measure of trends in global value chains is global foreign direct investment (FDI). In this respect, the trends are far clearer. The data show a significant and sharp decrease in FDI since 2008. This may be a reflection of the decreasing rate of return on FDI, as the initial returns to scale for large multinational corporations start to diminish and new local competitors come online.

The expansion of the digital economy is also likely a big factor in shifts away from FDI commitments, as improvements and diffusion of technology allows businesses to provide services without foreign direct investment in a location. A reduction in FDI may therefore show a complete removal of international involvement, or may just represent a shift in the distance and nature of involvement and investments in foreign markets.

Diversification and Regionalization, Not De-globalization

The expansion of global value chains does appear to have slowed from the heady pre-recession era, and direct on-the-ground investment has plummeted. But, just as with globalization in general, it is too early to say whether supply chains as a whole are shrinking, shifting or something else. Companies could be mitigating risk by diversifying supplier relationships and regionalizing supply chains in response to a proliferation of regional trade agreements that removed barriers.

Looking at the United States specifically, there is evidence of both shifts.

As seen in the chart below, the share of total U.S. imports from China have sharply declined. As we might expect, 2017 marks the beginning of a downturn in the share of imports coming from China. The particularly sharp drop after 2018 shows the effects of the U.S.-China trade war, reflecting the increased costs imposed by tariffs. The sustained political risk combined with trade policies prompted businesses to reduce reliance on exports from China in favor of sourcing elsewhere in the world.

Over the same time period, low-cost Asian producers such as Thailand and Vietnam saw an uptick in share of U.S. imports. U.S. companies may be diversifying production relationships away from China and toward other countries in the region, or at least taking advantage of excess production capacity in facilities elsewhere. The increases are significant but not massive in real monetary terms for a single country, suggesting a “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” mentality.

Even the United States’ largest tech companies like Apple, Microsoft and Google have been reportedly exploring similar moves. In their recent re-shoring report, Kearney found evidence that low-cost producers in Asia have been the beneficiaries over the last five years of efforts from U.S. companies to diversify their supplier networks.

There is also evidence that companies are doubling down on natural geographic trading partners through regionalization of supply networks. Mexico’s share of U.S. imports has increased steadily over the last few years, with a particularly sharp increase in 2019 in tandem with the U.S.-China tariff war.

Regional economic integration is not a new policy strategy. Many of the earliest free trade agreements were regional in nature. Under NAFTA, U.S. firms leveraged the complementary assets of our neighbors to the north and south to strengthen the global competitiveness of regionally-made products. As the Bush Institute Global Competitiveness Scorecard shows, the United States, Canada and Mexico are more competitive as a North American region than any other region in the world. The implementation of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement will provide incentive to reinforce these relationships as U.S. companies think about “rebalancing” their supply networks.

What to Look For

It is still too early to see the real effects of the COVID-19 pandemic or even the US-China trade war in the data on imports and global value chains, predictions notwithstanding.

Global value chains may be expected to remain complex, but could shift to cross borders that are closer geographically as trade increases among regional partners within Europe, North America and Pacific Rim countries. A key indicator for this will be changes in shipping trends. Expert Martin Stopford predicts a decrease in demand for large container ships and an uptick in demand for smaller shipping vessels that are more economical for shorter routes.

Before the pandemic, global supply chain expansion was not increasing at the speed it once was, but reports of its demise are premature. Instead, companies are thinking about diversification for improved resilience without sacrificing the benefits of a global and interconnected system of international trade.

Meanwhile, hopes for American reshoring may be equally overblown. The United States has obstacles to overcome, including a shortage of skilled labor and high production costs. Nonetheless, companies will have to assess whether a cost-above-all-else approach to manufacturing and sourcing is sustainable in a post-pandemic global economy.

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Alice Calder received her MA in Applied Economics at GMU. Originally from the UK, where she received her BA in Philosophy and Political Economy from the University of Exeter, living and working internationally sparked her interest in trade issues as well as the intersection of economics and culture.

This article originally appeared on TradeVistas.org. Republished with permission.
corruption

Corruption is a Costly “Hidden” Tariff

Hidden costs

Tariffs, quotas and sanctions are all overt hurdles to free trade that increase the costs of commercial exchanges or even prohibit them. But not all barriers to trade are written down in law or even apparent on the surface. Some lurk in the form of money changing hands under the table.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in a recent report identified corruption as one of the most costly non-tariff barriers in global trade, particularly for low and low-middle income countries. Acting as a “hidden tariff,” a lack of integrity in trade can be just as damaging to trade relations as any legalized restriction.

Corruption wreaks direct costs such as skimmed revenue and outright theft, but can also create health and safety risks as officials look the other way on dangerous cargo. At the firm level, the OECD estimates informal payments and corruption add a “tax” of anywhere from five to ten percent of the value of company sales in markets where corruption is normalized. Combined, these effects will damage countries’ economic welfare over the long run.

corruption adds tax

Trading in bribes

Burdensome regulations and opaque bureaucracy often go hand in hand. The more complex regulation is, the greater the cost of compliance, and the more attractive bribery becomes as an end run around the bureaucracy and the easier corruption is to hide. When governments maintain quotas and other quantitative restrictions, administrative procedures to allocate them also create opportunities for mischief.

Corruption in trade is damaging to business in a number of ways. The added costs consume resources that could be spent bringing down prices or improving quality. Corruption also distorts private sector competition – firms that do best are the ones that can best work the corrupt system, not necessarily the ones that provide the most value. Companies unwilling or unable to engage in corruption are limited or barred from providing their goods and services in that economy.

High levels of corruption also make international firms unwilling to invest due to the added risks. Local citizens, particularly those in emerging economies, feel this damage through a lack of access to affordable, quality products, reduced job opportunities, and insufficient allocation of government resources to public services due to missing tax revenue.

World Bank lost revenue at customs borders

Greasing wheels at the borders

The World Bank estimates that corruption generates losses of about $2 billion each year in lost revenue collection at customs borders.

Complicated rules, a lack of oversight, and the discretionary power characteristic of many customs administrations provide opportunities for corruption at all levels. Whether it takes the form of slipping an agent money at a customs check to let goods through or fudge some paperwork, or large-scale fraud involving officials all the way to the top, corruption can be widespread and corrosive. As former Secretary General of the World Customs Organization, J. W. Shaver, once put it: “There are few public agencies in which the classic pre-conditions for institutional corruption are so conveniently presented as in a customs administration.

In one high profile example, a 2015 investigation in Guatemala uncovered systemic corruption in their customs authority. In return for bribes, importers were allowed to under-report shipments to avoid import taxes on a large scale, costing the country millions. Mass protests with citizens calling for transparency and accountability led to the vice president’s resignation.

Sometimes corruption is less bold but equally systemic. Superstore giant Walmart has recently come under fire for looking past bribery within its supply chain. In 2019, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigated Walmart under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for deliberately ignoring corruption risks and red flags in its dealings in India, China, Brazil and Mexico. In India, many payments were less than $200, but together totaled millions. Walmart is paying $238 million to settle the investigation.

WCO quote about customs

Dangers of turning a blind eye

Beyond lost revenue, when customs officials turn a blind eye to nefarious shippers, human lives are put at risk. In 2015, chemicals that were falsely declared in China’s Tianjin port exploded, resulting in over 150 deaths. Investigations found that bribes were paid to sidestep safety regulations. The incident worsened when firefighters used water on the fire, unaware (due to deliberate mislabelling) that the type of chemicals involved would detonate upon reaction with the water.

Solutions that could pay off

There is an argument that, in some cases, so-called “informal payments” may actually facilitate trade in situations where government regulatory hurdles and inefficiencies are hard to overcome. However, greasing the wheels in this manner fails to remove systemic incentives to engage in corrupt behavior.

The trouble is, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of corruption in international trade. The most pressing risks must be targeted to ensure safety and integrity while avoiding over-burdensome rules and red tape that hamper trade and economic growth.

The OECD suggests a mix of approaches. Broad, high-level government support is needed to tackle corruption within customs administrations and border control. The penalties for bribery offenses must be stiffened and applied. The private sector must be engaged to monitor practices in their global supply chains. And, the OECD suggests writing transparency and anti-corruption provisions into trade agreements.

Beyond business and borders

Corruption is a quantifiable hidden tariff on individual commercial transactions. What’s harder is to measure the extent to which corruption, perpetrated in drips over the course of years, damages broader economic prosperity.

If open markets and greater trade benefit ordinary people, as we know they do, then tackling corruption to promote legitimate trade would have positive impacts on the well-being of millions around the world.

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Alice Calder

Alice Calder received her MA in Applied Economics at GMU. Originally from the UK, where she received her BA in Philosophy and Political Economy from the University of Exeter, living and working internationally sparked her interest in trade issues as well as the intersection of economics and culture.

This article originally appeared on TradeVistas.org. Republished with permission.

rule of law

Rule of Law is the Bedrock of Trade Agreements

Trade agreements promote rule of law

One could argue that the fundamental goal of any trade agreement is to promote and undergird government adherence to rule of law, which in turn enables private economic activity to thrive. When coupled with commitments to market access, individuals and companies are free to do business anywhere in the world.

Trade agreements such as the newly congressionally approved U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement contain provisions designed to directly combat corruption and promote good regulatory practices. They also contain myriad requirements that support best administrative practices including publishing changes to regulations, allowing for public comment, and adhering to transparent processes for government tenders, for example.

What is rule of law where trade is concerned?

No country gets it perfectly right. Supporting rule of law requires vigilance, upkeep and continual improvement.

Impartial review and scrutiny can be a powerful incentive for self-reflection. In 2013, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched an effort to measure the qualities that companies look for “to make good investment and operating decisions..in any given market.”

Its resulting Global Rule of Law and Business Dashboard identified five broad factors to assess rule of law: transparency, predictability, stability, accountability and due process. Are the laws and regulations applied to businesses operating in the market readily accessible, easily understood, and applied in a logical and consistent manner? Do governing institutions operate consistently across administrations or are decisions arbitrary and easily reversed? Can investors be confident that the law will be upheld and applied without discrimination? Does the judicial system allow for disputes to be resolved through fair, transparent, and pre-determined processes?

That’s so “meta”

The Chamber didn’t recreate the analytical wheel – it developed a “meta measure” of rule of law for business by combining underlying indicators from several established indices.

The list includes the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Competitiveness Report, the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, and several World Bank survey and index products including the Doing Business reports that have been long used by governments as roadmaps for reforms. By pulling relevant pieces of these indices, the Chamber computes a composite score to rank 90 markets.

Sunshine is the best disinfectant

Rating and publishing information about the operating conditions in the marketplace can be one of the best ways to shine light on corruption and poor governance, sometimes prompting a healthy competition among governments to show improvements that will attract more businesses.

Increasing all forms of private investment, including foreign direct investment, is critical to sustaining economic growth for most countries. Over the last few years, however, multinational companies have been reducing their foreign direct investments. In 2018, FDI flows dropped 19 percent from to $1.47 trillion to $1.2 trillion.

Companies consider many criteria when evaluating where to do business. Respect for rule of law is often a decisive factor over whether companies can or will participate in an overseas market. Without sufficient rule of the law, the risks are too great and the return on investment jeopardized. Having a high degree of confidence in rule of law is clearly correlated with where FDI flows. Other than the large emerging markets of China, Brazil, Russia, Mexico and India, the top recipients of net inflows of FDI between 2000 and 2017 are the same countries that ranked highly on the Global Rule of Law and Business Dashboard.

Room for improvement

Unsurprisingly, Singapore, Sweden, New Zealand, Netherlands, Australia, Germany, United Kingdom, the United States, Japan and Canada comprise the economies held the top ten slots on the Rule of Law and Business Dashboard released in July 2019. (China fell from 19th in 2017 to 26th in 2019.)

Bottom 10 smaller framed

And, unsurprisingly, countries beset by political instability and civil strife remain stuck at the bottom of the index. Here in the Americas neighborhood, Guatemala and Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico are all perilously close to bottom of the list, something we should be concerned with and engage these countries on as important trading partners.

Importantly, the Chamber report points out that, “income is not necessarily a predetermining factor in terms of the strength of the rule of law and business environment.” Senegal and Kenya, with a per capita GDP of just around $3,458 and $3,292 respectively, score similarly to South Africa with its per capita income that is almost four times higher.

In producing the study, the Chamber seeks to induce positive changes across the board over the long run. Although the Global Rule of Law and Business Dashboard hasn’t been conducted long enough with a full complement of countries to tout a concrete impact just yet, the Chamber reports that the aggregate score does seem to be moving in right direction, increasing from 51.63 percent in 2015 to 56.77 percent in 2019. Even the United States pulled its score up more than four percentage points from 2017.

The best kind of competition

Benchmarking is a valuable approach, not merely to expose flaws but as a way for governments to identify and adopt reforms yielding proven results for other countries. Governments can even market an improved ranking to potential investors.

While we often measure the outcomes of trade agreements by the volume of trade, the biggest victory may be the least appreciated: the subtle but important improvements to the way our trading partners respect the rule of law as applied to their own citizenry – and to ours.

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Andrea Durkin is the Editor-in-Chief of TradeVistas and Founder of Sparkplug, LLC. Ms. Durkin previously served as a U.S. Government trade negotiator and has proudly taught international trade policy and negotiations for the last fourteen years as an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program.

This article originally appeared on TradeVistas.org. Republished with permission.

 

trade deals

Is It Just a Phase? Redesigning Trade Deals in the Age of Trump.

Comprehensive is Out, “Phased” is In

Within the first few months of the Trump Administration in 2017, the U.S. Trade Representative issued a report identifying intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer as crucial sources of China’s growing technological advantage at the expense of U.S. innovation. Tariffs would be applied until a trade deal to address these practices could be reached.

But expectations had to be reset early in the negotiations – China’s offenses cannot be pinpointed to one set of laws, regulations or practices, and so the complex wiring of China’s national approach cannot be untangled or rewired in one pass, in one agreement, even if China shared that goal. An agreement this ambitious would have to be built in phases.

In presenting the “Phase One” agreement signed between the United States and China on January 15, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said the deal represents “a big step forward in writing the rules we need” to address the anti-competitive aspects of China’s state-run economy. And it is a serious document.

Beyond its detailed provisions, the strategic and commercial impact of the deal will take more time to evaluate. What is clear in the meanwhile, is that this administration has departed from the standard free trade agreement template.

Comprehensive agreements are out. Partial or phased agreements are in.

Something Agreed

It’s common in trade negotiations to whittle down differences, leaving the hardest issues to the end. Early wins keep parties at the table, building a set of outcomes in which the parties become invested and more willing to forge compromises around the remaining difficult issues. One way to avoid settling for deals that leave aside the most meaningful – and often hardest – concessions is to stipulate that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

For this administration, however, the art of the deal is – quite simply – closing the elements of the deal available. With China, that may be the best and only way for the United States to achieve a deal. And it may very well represent significant progress. At turns, a larger deal looked as if it would collapse under its own political weight in China. Some things agreed is probably a better outcome than nothing agreed.

A Way Out or a Way Forward?

The deal lays down tracks for more detailed intellectual property rights and newer prohibitions on forced technology transfer. Among other commitments, the deal also breaks ground on previously intractable regulatory barriers to selling more U.S. agricultural and food products in China including dairy, poultry, meat, fish, and grains. But it does not address subsidies provided to China’s state-owned enterprises, a complaint shared by all of China’s major trading partners, Having dodged the issue for now, China may have created an advantage by stringing out its commitments over phases.

The Trump administration brought China to the table with billions in tariffs on imported goods. While compelling, it is not a durable approach. The U.S. macroeconomy is withstanding the self-inflicted pain, but tariffs have real and negative effects on U.S. farmers and business owners who will vote in November. Even a temporary tariff détente is a welcome respite, but uncertainty remains. And while we wait to see if the provisions on intellectual property and technology transfer prove fruitful, what of the lost agricultural sales for U.S. farmers and sunk costs for U.S. businesses?

As part of the deal (a part that gets phased out), China committed to shop for $200 billion in American goods and services over the next two years, including more than $77 billion in manufactured goods, $52 billion in energy products, $32 billion in agricultural goods and $40 billion in services. If fulfilled, the purchases in Phase One would appear to solve the problem of waning U.S. exports to China, but that was a problem of our own making so the administration might only merit partial credit for this part of the deal.

Journey of a Thousand Miles

Of course, the Trump administration’s phased and partial approach to reaching trade deals may simply stem from impatience or a focus on the transactional – comprehensive deals take too long to complete. But the approach may also make sense if these deals are stepping-stones in a bigger, longer game.

In a June 2018 report, the White House offered a taxonomy of 30 different ways the Chinese government acquires American technologies and intellectual property, including through U.S. exports of dual-use technologies, Chinese investments in the United States, and the extraction of competitive information through research arms of universities and companies in the United States.

Ambitious as it is, the administration is not limiting itself to the new Economic and Trade Agreement to solve all the problems it identified. The Department of Justice has initiated intellectual property theft cases, the Department of Commerce is expanding controls over the export of dual-use technologies, and the Treasury Department oversees a process to tighten reviews of proposed inward investments.

A Chinese proverb says that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Concerns the administration will not limit or end its quest with Phase One were evident in the letter from President Xi read aloud at the signing which urged continued engagement to avoid further “discriminatory restrictions” on China’s economic activity in the United States.

Just a Phase?

Beyond engagement with China, the administration has nearly consistently favored partial deals, with the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement (USMCA) the exception. NAFTA needed to be modernized. Our economies have changed too much for the deal to keep pace without some upgrades. Could the modifications have been achieved without replacing the deal? Probably, but perhaps not politically, or it might have been done years sooner. NAFTA’s facelift as USMCA offered a chance for the administration to fashion provisions it intends for broader application, such as those on currency and state-owned enterprises. Though it replaced NAFTA, USMCA changes constitute a partial re-negotiation.

With Japan, the administration set much narrower parameters, hiving off-market access and digital trade as an initial set of deliverables. Last September, President Trump finalized a partial trade deal with Prime Minister Abe that went into effect on January 1. Limited in scope, it encompasses two separate agreements that only cover market access for certain agriculture and industrial goods and digital trade.

The White House characterized the partial deal as a set of “early achievements,” with follow-on negotiations on trade in services, investment and other issues to commerce around April this year. But crucially, the partial deal enabled the United States to avoid addressing its own tariffs on autos and auto parts, which comprise nearly 40 percent of Japan’s merchandise exports to the United States, while securing access to Japan’s market for U.S. agricultural exports.

The United States also restarted talks in 2018 on a partial trade agreement with the European Union that is stalemated over whether to include agriculture.

Walking Alone?

Preferential market access deals are an exception to WTO commitments. WTO members have agreed that free trade agreements outside the WTO should cover “substantially all trade” among the parties and that staging of tariff reductions are part of interim arrangements, not an end state. But with comprehensive negotiations stalled in the WTO itself, members are trying new negotiating approaches such as focusing on single sectors, like information technologies.

Although there was little mention of state-owned enterprises and subsidies in the U.S.-China Phase One deal, something important happened on the margins of that ceremony that received little attention: The trade ministers of Japan, the United States and European Union released a joint statement proposing ways to strengthen the WTO’s provisions on industrial subsides, which they called “insufficient to tackle market and trade distorting subsidization existing in certain jurisdictions,” a reference to China. The statement proposed elements of new core disciplines – a first phase if you will in launching more formal negotiations among WTO members.

The deal signed with China this week envisions reforms to China’s laws, regulations and policies as they apply to any foreign company operating in China, not just the American ones. Perhaps our trading partners see it (only partially) as a go-it-alone strategy and partially as a way to create a corps of provisions that can be migrated to the WTO.

Phase One trade deal - foundation for future US-China trade relations?

Construction Phases: Trump’s Real Estate Mindset

How is the real estate business like trade policy? It isn’t, except in the mind of Donald Trump. Buildings can be demolished or imploded in seconds. A giant hole is dug before its replacement is built. The builder then pours the concrete foundation constructs the frame long before wiring the interior and installing the finishes.

Maybe a phased trade deal represents the opportunity to reset the footing and frame out a solid structure for the future of US-China trade relations – and the finishing touches will come later.

Access the full agreement.

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Andrea Durkin is the Editor-in-Chief of TradeVistas and Founder of Sparkplug, LLC. Ms. Durkin previously served as a U.S. Government trade negotiator and has proudly taught international trade policy and negotiations for the last fourteen years as an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program.

This article originally appeared on TradeVistas.org. Republished with permission.
trade

Laboring for Trade

Labor provisions are an increasingly important feature in trade agreements. But do they work?

How countries treat their workers might seem unconnected to the movement of goods and services across national borders. Yet in many trade negotiations, a trading partner’s labor standards are an increasingly important concern.

The fate of the pending United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), for instance, hinged for months on bipartisan support for the pact’s provisions around labor. In fact, the Trump Administration made major efforts to woo organized labor and ultimately secured the support of the AFL-CIO, thereby ensuring the agreement’s passage through the Democratically-controlled House.

But despite the attention paid to labor provisions in trade deals like USMCA, domestic policy, not trade agreements, might be the most direct – and most effective – way to improve workers’ lot, especially in advanced countries like the United States. As important as labor provisions have become to trade agreements, available research points to a mixed record on their impacts.

More and more common in trade agreements

Trade and labor standards have been linked concerns since at least the 19th century, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). As early as the mid-1800s, European social activists were agitating for international labor norms such as an eight-hour workday and the abolition of forced labor. By the end of the century, countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand had passed laws banning the import of products made by prisoners.

But it wasn’t until the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 that trade agreements explicitly addressed labor (technically the 1947 Havana Charter contained an article on Fair Labour Standards but did not go into effect). NAFTA included the first side agreement on labor standards, the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC), which established a system of “cooperative activities” that the United States, Mexico and Canada agreed to undertake together to improve worker treatment.

The floodgates opened after NAFTA. In 1996, the World Trade Organization (WTO) adopted The Singapore Ministerial Declaration, embodying a new global consensus on trade and labor. Among other things, the Declaration included a commitment to international core labor standards while rejecting the use of labor standards for “protectionist purposes.”

Today, labor provisions are increasingly de rigeur in trade deals. By the ILO’s count, 77 trade agreements negotiated globally in 2016 included labor provisions, compared to just three in 1995. Overall, says the ILO, more than a quarter of global trade pacts reached in 2016 – 28.8 percent – addressed labor standards in some way.

 

# ageements with L provisions text

Rationale for labor provisions

Proponents of labor standards in trade agreements cite several justifications for including these provisions. The first is moral: Trade agreements set the rules for international trade, and the inclusion of labor standards reinforces the social and human rights norms valued by the international community. Some argue that rich countries like the United States have a particular duty to use their leverage and buying power to raise standards in developing nations.

Another rationale is economic. As the ILO notes, “[L]abour provisions are tools against unfair competition, the main idea being that violations of labour standards can distort competitiveness (‘social dumping’) and should be addressed in a manner similar to that employed against other unfair trading practices.” In particular, labor standards arguably prevent a “race to the bottom,” where countries compete to produce ever-cheaper goods by shortchanging their workers. Some U.S. advocates further argue that labor standards can level the field between workers in competing countries, potentially stemming the tide of offshoring from wealthier countries to lower-paying ones and protecting domestic jobs. (More on this argument below.)

A third rationale for these provisions is political. Labor provisions, especially in the United States, have become a powerful bargaining chip for competing interests, as the USMCA and other trade agreements have shown. The strength of a trade pact’s labor provisions has also become a proxy for the “fair” trade that the public increasingly wants to see; trade deals might be more likely to win public approval if its advocates can tout “tough” labor provisions that purport to protect U.S. jobs.

ILO chart of provisions in agreements

Carrots, sticks and helping hands

While becoming increasingly complex, labor provisions tend to fall into several basic categories. First, so-called “promotional” provisions aim to encourage countries to raise labor standards by defining a set of commitments and detailing a variety of “cooperative” activities countries might do to discuss, implement and monitor these obligations.

For instance, in the CAFTA-DR agreement involving the United States, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, the United States agreed to finance an array of “capacity building” activities aimed at improving countries’ infrastructure around workers’ rights. These projects, according to the ILO, included “increasing workers’ awareness of their labour rights, increasing the budget and equipment of labour ministries and labour judiciaries, training labour officials, and setting up centres providing legal assistance to workers.”

While these types of provisions could be considered “carrots,” agreements can also include “sticks” in the form of “conditional” provisions requiring a trading partner to meet certain obligations before a deal is ratified. The United States’ trade agreement with Morocco, for instance, required Morocco to raise its minimum working age from 12 to 15 and to lower the maximum number of hours in its workweek from 48 to 44 as a precondition to ratification.

Text graphic weak enforcement criticism of NAFTA

Other “sticks” include provisions calling for sanctions if a country’s commitments aren’t met and specifying the mechanisms for policing and enforcement. Among the processes detailed would be who is entitled to file a complaint and how disputes will be settled (e.g, through arbitration). Among the chief complaints of NAFTA’s critics was weak enforcement, which is one reason why this issue became a major sticking point in negotiations over NAFTA’s successor, the USMCA. For instance, while more than 40 labor complaints were filed under NAFTA, none have so far led to sanctions, a result that many labor advocates wanted to see remedied.

Impacts on workers’ conditions and on trade flows

Research on the impacts of labor provisions in trade agreements is relatively scant. For one thing, measuring the direct impacts of these provisions on workers’ circumstances is hard to do. What research there is, however, shows that labor provisions can benefit workers in developing countries, especially if they have the support of wealthier trading partners in building capacity for creating and implementing reforms.

In a 2017 survey of existing research, the ILO found that labor provisions in trade agreements can provide a modest boost to workforce participation in some countries, particularly among women, and even help ease the gender gap in wages. According to the ILO, the average workforce participation rates in countries subject to labor provisions is about 1.6 percentage points higher than in countries without such obligations. “One possible explanation for this effect is that labour provision-related policy dialogue and awareness-raising can influence people’s expectations of better working conditions, which in turn increase their willingness to enter the labour force,” says the ILO.

In certain circumstances, conditional labor provisions can dramatically benefit workers. In Cambodia, for instance, according to the ILO, labor provisions included in the Cambodia–United States Bilateral Textile Agreement helped reduce the gender gap in Cambodia’s textile sector by as much as 80 percent between 1999 and 2004. “These results are partly due to the incentive structure of the agreement, which tied export quotas to compliance with labour standards, but also to a monitoring programme (Better Factories Cambodia) that was implemented with the support of the ILO and backed by the social partners,” the ILO found.

What the evidence does not show is that higher labor standards in developing countries dampens the flow of trade by raising the price of goods produced. In fact, research shows the opposite – countries subject to labor provisions often see a slight increase in their exports. According to a 2017 analysis by the World Trade Organization (WTO), labor provisions can benefit low-income countries by “increas[ing] demand for products by concerned consumers” in richer countries, thereby leading to more trade. (Consider, for instance, the growing consumer demand for “fair trade” coffee.) Similarly, the ILO finds that countries entering trade agreements with labor provisions see a slightly greater increase in the value of trade compared to countries without such provisions.

L provisions no substitute for domestic action

Both the WTO and ILO analyses caution, however, that the countries seeing the biggest impacts on their workers also enjoyed strong domestic support for labor reforms. While entering a trade agreement with labor provisions might have helped catalyze important shifts in domestic policy, the agreements themselves are no substitute for domestic action. In fact, in places where domestic enthusiasm for labor market reforms are weak, the impacts of labor provisions have been minimal.

One case in point is Guatemala, where the AFL-CIO and six Guatemalan trade unions filed a complaint in 2008 alleging that Guatemala was failing its obligations under CAFTA-DR. After nine years of procedural and other delays, an arbitration panel convened under the auspices of CAFTA-DR in Guatemala failed to find that Guatemala had breached its obligations under the agreement, despite the lack of progress on systemic reforms and widespread reports of anti-union violence.

No replacement for domestic policy

The inclusion of robust labor provisions in trade agreements reinforces international norms for just worker treatment. It can also promote much-needed reforms in nations with weak standards and help protect workers from exploitation.

Wealthy countries should not, however, count on labor provisions in trade agreements as a principal mechanism for protecting domestic jobs.

For one thing, as we’ve written elsewhere on this site, companies’ decisions about where to put their factories depends on many factors other than the cost of labor, such as proximity to markets, intellectual property protections, tax and regulatory considerations, and the skill of the workforce. Second, labor provisions in trade agreements are, at best, a highly indirect way of leveling the playing field between workers from one country to another. Third and most significantly, the biggest future threat to a worker’s job might not be a lower-paid worker in a maquila but a robot.

While apocalyptic forecasts of automation’s impacts are no doubt overblown, there’s little question that advances in automation will prove immensely disruptive in coming decades. For instance, one 2018 analysis by Price Waterhouse Cooper predicts that nearly 40 percent of U.S. jobs could be susceptible to automation by 2030.

Ultimately, the best protection for workers are domestic policies that prepare workers for disruption and smooth their transition in the event of displacement. These policies can include better and more robust adjustment assistance for displaced workers; bigger government investments in career and technical education, particularly for incumbent workers; greater coordination among governments, businesses and schools so that workers have the right skills to fill gaps in the workforce; and increased public support for research into innovations that will lead to more jobs.

This is not to say that the energy spent on negotiating labor provisions in trade agreements isn’t time well-spent. What policymakers and the public need to know is what these provisions can — and can’t — do.

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Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a contributing editor to Washington Monthly and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection, forthcoming in 2020 from the New Press. Her writings on economic opportunity, social policy, and higher education have appeared in numerous national outlets, including the Washington Monthly, the Washington Post, Governing and Atlantic.com, among others. She is a veteran of the think tanks the Progressive Policy Institute and Third Way as well as of Capitol Hill, where she worked for Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN). Anne has a law degree from Duke University and a bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

This article originally appeared on TradeVistas.org. Republished with permission.

trade

How U.S. Trade Policies are Speeding the Development of a Multi-Polar Global Economy

Several years in to the multi-front trade conflict led by the current U.S. administration, the world economy teeters on the edge of a possible recession.  The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that up to $700 billion in global trade could be wiped off the books by the end of next year due to the trade war.  Much of the direct loss, of course, is tied to reduced trade between the U.S. and China, but other trading regions, such as the rest of Asia and Europe, are impacted by this global slowdown.  How is this shaping future trade flows?

Of course, there are some immediate winners in this tussle between the two economic giants.  Countries such as Mexico and Vietnam have seen sharp increase in trade as businesses scramble to find new production sites that would allow them to duck tariffs. Hidden behind these headlines, however, is perhaps a more important story; the rapid development of a multi-polar global economy.

Observers wringing their hands over the U.S.-China trade dispute may have missed what else is going on in the world.  Europe has been negotiating trade agreements at a rapid clip, finalizing deals with Canada, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, several African regions and South America (MERCOSUR) over the last three years.  Africa is launching the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), a 54-nation trade block that is hoped will dramatically increase inter-African trade. After a snub from the U.S., the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was retitled the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and is now an active free trade area among 11 partner nations.  Asian countries are considering a 16-nation trade pact called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).  In brief, world leaders are not sitting on their hands waiting for the U.S.-China dispute to get resolved.  They are seizing opportunities to trade elsewhere.

World demographics make this multi-polar trading system inevitable.  Despite the United States’ tremendous economic power, it represents less than five percent of the world population. Although it is a wealthy sliver of the overall market, that means that 95% of the world’s consumers still reside elsewhere.  Over the next few decades, rapid population growth in Asia and Africa will continue to change these market numbers, with 79% of the world’s consumers residing in Africa or Asia by 2050. The global middle class will continue to grow outside of ‘traditional markets’ and by 2030, over half of the world population will be considered middle class.  Some estimates suggesting that over 90% of future middle class growth will come in Asia and Africa. 

This dramatic surge in wealth and consumer spending power outside of Europe, the U.S. and Japan demands more infrastructure to support logistics.  China’s initiatives to help itself carve out a primary role in developing these new markets through the Belt and Road program are well known, but Europe has also jumped into the seize a piece of the action, especially in Africa, and programs to upgrade infrastructure at the state level are fueling building from South America to the Philippines. 

It’s my expectation global trade will become even more fragmented over the next decades,” notes European logistics expert Louis Coenders, owner of the Dutch advising firm De Transportheker, which has been consulting on transportation, warehousing, and global distribution since 2010 and has stressed to clients the growing importance of diversity in logistics as the world becomes multipolar.  “You cannot rely on one single source. From a risk management perspective, it’s never smart to put all your eggs into one basket. That also applies to international trade.”  Coenders further noted that the growing middle class in places like Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa will encourage infrastructure changes to bring products into these markets as consumer spending rises.  For the moment China has an edge into many of these areas, as illustrated by the first train shipments from Alibaba arriving into Liege, Belgium just last week as twice-a-week rail shipments are now sent directly from China to the EU courtesy of the improved rail system.

When the U.S. resolves its trade disputes with China (and potentially the EU, Turkey, Russia and other targets of the current administration), it will find that the unintended consequence of this long-term conflict is that the world has by necessity sped up economic exchanges, and adjusted trading systems and flows to accommodate this new multi-polar world.  While some of the trade may ‘come back’ to the United States, the changes in world population and fast-paced creation of new free trade blocks outside of North America means that other markets will seize this opportunity to deepen their trade relations and the U.S. will find itself in a more competitive and varied trading environment. This change was inevitable, but the recent trade war has sped up its development.  Agile, strategic companies will react to this market change by diversifying and partnering with colleagues in the growing markets of Africa and Asia. Those that are slow to change will find it hard to remain competitive in this brave new trade world.

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Kirk Samson is the owner of Samson Atlantic LLC, a Chicago-based international business consulting company which offers market research, political risk assessment, and international expansion assistance.  Mr. Samson is a former U.S. diplomat and international law advisor who lived and worked in ten different countries.

world trade

Simon Paris, Chair of the World Trade Board & CEO of Finastra, Provides a Snapshot of this year’s World Trade Symposium

Protecting world trade from the current vicious cycle of trade tensions makes it imperative that those in a position to effect change – public and private sectors – work together; quickly and cohesively. Chairman of the World Trade Board and CEO of Finastra, Simon Paris, discusses three ways in which committed organizations can bring about a new pro-trade paradigm, even against the backdrop of today’s protectionist narrative, to lift people out of poverty globally and enable long-term growth and prosperity for all.

Across the globe, protectionist rhetoric and policy initiatives have become increasingly normalized. Tensions and tariffs continue to escalate with the World Trade Organization estimating that $339.5bn1 in trade is now at risk from import restrictions – the second highest level ever recorded. Amidst this trend, we as business leaders, policy makers, and engaged thinkers must deepen our commitment to free and open trade benefiting communities and workers.

The path to open trade and ensuing economic growth is under shadow. The global economic uncertainty2 risk index hit an all-time high this year. Ongoing friction between the United States and China has not only caused a tangible 12% drop in US imports from China, but triggered aftershocks across other Asian economies as a result of closely integrated supply chains3. Japan and Korea have made headlines with their own trade war that risks their trade relationship worth about $85 billion a year4 and the future economic relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union amidst Brexit is uncertain.

In response free traders should commit to three acts of solidarity, with the aim of reversing – or as an absolute minimum, reducing – the pervasive change that continues to threaten trade as we know it.

Three commitments that will drive change

Firstly, we must be persistent in our reinforcement of the pro-trade narrative; uniting to protect and promote open trade as the unequivocal foundation for global prosperity and economic inclusion. Secondly, we must continue to investigate ways in which we can reduce the SME funding gap, currently estimated at $1.5 trillion5, which is precluding both innovation and financial independence on a global scale. It is imperative that we seek out new ways to free up finance or neutralize the perceived risk of lending to small firms. At a time where the least developed countries represent less than 1% of world exports6, we must find solutions that unlock the latent value within SMEs to stimulate competition, innovation and economic growth, and reduce the disparity of wealth in a sustainable way.

Finally, we must examine how open technology can act as the enabler for inclusive, sustainable trade. As global supply chains become increasingly complex, our goal should not be measured on a binary figure of turnover or profit, but on the ethical and sustainable impact of our technological innovation; our technological social responsibility (TSR). How can we use technology, collectively, to ascertain the provenance of materials, improve the health and wellbeing of workers in remote locations, reduce the cause and effects on environment pollution of long-distance transportation or minimize the impact of waste and disposal? How can we use open finance technologies – and by this, I include open systems, open software, open APIs, open standards and open partner networks – to transform supply chains and encourage the formulation of more relevant and inclusive trade models, in support of ethical trade?

Protecting against threats, known and unknown

A global marketplace helps ensure a sustainable model of financial inclusion that protects future generations against wealth disparity and isolation. I believe that it is only through a powerful combination of forward-thinking policies, collaborative mindsets and funding, underpinned by open finance technology, that we can deliver the change so desperately required, that promotes equality and opportunity, and reverses the trend of poverty and protectionism. It is time to find solutions to today’s threats to open trade and together protect against further polarization and the unseen threats of tomorrow.

Simon Paris will be opening the third World Trade Symposium, held in the Grand Hyatt, New York on 6-7 November. The event brings together policy-makers, trade finance luminaries and thought leaders to openly collaborate and effect change. Register Today!


1. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news19_e/trdev_22jul19_e.htm

2. http://policyuncertainty.com/

3. https://www.oecd.org/newsroom/international-trade-statistics-trends-in-first-quarter-2019.htm

4. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/28/business/japan-south-korea-trade.html

5. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/spra_e/spra241_e.htm

6. https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/statis_e/wts2019_e/wts2019_e.pdf

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Simon takes responsibility for Finastra’s strategic direction and growth. His leadership steers the company as it realizes its open platform vision, encouraging industry-wide collaboration to spark innovation and transform the next generation of financial services.

A firm believer in the principles of doing well by doing good, Simon chairs the World Trade Board and is passionate about how technology and open trade can drive financial inclusion and improve people’s lives.

An inspiring and trusted Fintech thought leader, Simon speaks regularly at large-scale events including the annual World Trade Symposium, Paris FinTech Forum and The Milken Asia Summit. He is a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion, with refreshing and candid views on equality in the workplace. He was also named in Bank Innovation’s ‘Innovators to Watch’ list for 2018.

Simon joined Finastra (formerly Misys) as President in 2015, was appointed Deputy Chief Executive Officer in 2017 and became Chief Executive Officer in June 2018. He brings more than 20 years of sales, management and global leadership expertise to the company, having previously held the role of President, Industry Cloud, at SAP. Prior to that he was a senior consultant with McKinsey & Company.

He holds a degree in Business Administration (MBA) from the INSEAD Business School in France and a Bachelor’s degree in Business & European languages from the European Business School.

Vietnam

Why Washington Shouldn’t see Vietnam as the Next China

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.

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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 cdipietro@livingstonintl.com.