Each of the 12 countries that signed up to the landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement expects to benefit greatly from a deal that will open up a vast new market of 800 million people for their products and spans a large portion of the globe. However, none has higher expectations than Vietnam, which experts say has emerged as the big winner of the TPP agreement, with Malaysia as the runner-up, in the struggle to boost exports and attract FDI. 

The agreement’s 30 chapters cover various trade and trade-related issues, including reducing tariff and non-tariff barriers in sectors as diverse as agriculture, industrial goods, pharmaceuticals, service industries, financial services and telecommunications. 

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The agreement also deals with investment, intellectual property, labour, the environment, good governance and methods for dispute settlement. Novel features of the agreement include addressing the roles of state-sponsored enterprises and e-commerce, and its commitment to assisting small and medium-sized enterprises so that they benefit from the new trade openings. It will also work towards facilitating the development of production and supply chains and seamless trade.

FDI boost

That so many countries – Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US and Vietnam – at such different levels of development were able to reach agreement on so many complex and domestically sensitive issues is remarkable. That it took five years is not.

The TPP, though primarily about trade, is also expected to generate a significant increase in FDI. Indeed, its chapter on investment specifically emphasises that each country’s markets and services sector will be fully open to foreign investors – unless the country has put a specific sector on a 'negative list' that is not open to foreign investment.

“The big winners on trade are likely to be the big winners on investment, especially over a 10-year period,” says Dr Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC.

In percentage terms, Mr Hufbauer expects Vietnam to be a big winner in both categories because it is coming from far behind the rest of the field. In addition, its tariffs on many imports – among the highest in the TPP trade area – will be lowered or eliminated. To get the maximum benefit from the TPP, Mr Hufbauer says Vietnam will need better technology and financial services, both of which will require FDI. “If Vietnam carries through on the reforms in the TPP, it will get a ton of investment,” he says.

Vietnam’s burgeoning textile and apparel sector, which currently exports about $17.5bn-worth of goods a year, is expected to benefit most under the TPP. Its other major exports are telephones, consumer electronics, footwear and seafood.

The Nafta effect

Mr Hufbauer expects that under the TPP, Vietnam could enjoy the benefits of “the Nafta effect”, which enabled Mexico to increase the FDI it received from $3bn to $4bn a year to $15bn to $20bn annually after Mexico, the US and Canada signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. To get the full benefit of the TPP, however, both Vietnam and Malaysia will need to improve their infrastructure and tackle corruption, he says.

Dr Deborah Elms, executive director of the Asian Trade Centre in Singapore, is also bullish on Vietnam. “The consequences of the TPP for the [Vietnamese] economy are huge. A lot of the reforms they have to make are hard and challenging. By using TPP as the mechanism to get reforms done, we are more likely to see them,” she says. 

Inward FDI has already begun, she adds, with large-scale investors from China, South Korea and Indonesia already moving to Vietnam to take advantage of the TPP. Ms Elms points out that the trade benefits of the TPP are based on where the product is made, not on the country in which the corporate headquarters are located. Therefore companies with operations in other countries are likely to move those operations to locations within the TPP to benefit from zero or lowered tariff barriers on their products. 

Malaysia too has high hopes for the TPP. It sees a competitive advantage for its key exports of electrical and electronics goods, as well as chemical, palm oil, rubber, wood, textiles and automotive products. In a statement, the Malaysian government reported that a number of foreign companies in non-TPP countries were exploring Malaysia as a base for their operations to take advantage of the agreement.

Sector winners

The TPP also opens up vast new opportunities for the services sector in member countries – an arena in which the US is extremely competitive, says Ms Elms. The agreement states that member countries’ markets must be fully open to services, except those on the 'negative list'. 'Services' include professional services such as legal and accounting, as well as retail and restaurants, travel and tourism, and telecommunications. At the same time, Ms Elms expects openings to be created for domestic companies to become competitive.

Another industry she expects to benefit from the TPP is the food and agricultural sector, where markets are traditionally very protected and closed to foreign products. Tariffs will be eliminated or reduced over time, food will not have to be repeatedly tested as it crosses borders, and special rules will expedite the processing of perishable goods through customs. Ms Elms expects these advantages to attract FDI, especially in food processing.  

“If a company can figure out how to take advantage of this agreement, the upside is great. But it takes a fair amount of effort to figure out what is in it and how to harness it,” she says.

It will also take a fair amount of effort for each of the 12 governments that signed the deal to get their parliaments to go along with it. In each country there are powerful groups that see their own special interests as being damaged, whether in the agricultural, biopharmaceutical or automotive sectors. Labour groups also worry that production will be outsourced to workers in low-wage countries. US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has announced her opposition to TPP, even though it was negotiated by a fellow member of the Democratic Party.

Expect a fierce fight on all fronts before the dust settles.