As a Vietnamese cabbie famously quipped, “We fought the Chinese for 1,000 years, we fought the French for 100. You [the US] were here just for 10.” But while it might seem unlikely that no animosity exists between the two former combatants, the speed at which the Vietnamese-United States (US) economic relationship has evolved over the past few decades strongly suggests so.
Only having reestablished full economic relations in 2001, the US and Vietnam were two of just eight countries to engage in initial talks of the now defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) less than a decade later. Now, the US is Vietnam’s largest export market and second largest trading partner in general—behind only China—accounting for $45.5 billion in imports and exports in 2016. Of that total, agricultural exports from the US accounted for $2.5 billion, a number which has increased 414 percent in the past decade and which makes Vietnam the US’ eleventh largest agricultural export market.
Vietnam’s desire is clear. As the rapidly-growing country and its economy orient toward higher value-added industries, such as manufacturing and services, reliably sourcing cheap and abundant quantities of agricultural commodities is a national priority. Vietnam’s dogged pursuit of the recently-signed, US-less Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) makes it clear that any viable trade partners—be they former combatants or not—will suffice along the country’s road toward economic development.
It didn't take long for newly-elected US President Donald Trump to begin delivering on his signature campaign promise—freeing the US from what he considered to be extortionate trade agreements. In fact, it only took one full day in office. It didn't take much longer, however, for the other eleven members of the TPP to huddle and rally for the trade agreement’s survival, and the CPTPP was officially announced within the same year.
Vietnam was one of the first eight countries to begin formal negotiations of the TPP and again one of the most eager to resurrect it in the form of the CPTPP. A closer look at Vietnam’s economic growth makes it clear why. Since embracing free-market ideology in 1986, the Vietnamese economy has flourished by nearly every measure.
Vietnamese exports and imports of total goods and services have increased 8,140 percent and 6,279 percent, respectively, between 1990 and 2016. Meanwhile, gross domestic product (GDP) per capita rose from just 939 to 6,296 international dollars. Notably, Vietnam flipped from a net importer to a net exporter, a shift that the country’s government is clearly keen to build on.
Trade has become the lifeblood of Vietnam's economy. After the US and Vietnam concluded a 2001 bilateral trade agreement, Vietnam moved quickly to become the 150th member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2007. Now, Vietnam is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which as a bloc has signed trade pacts with Korea, China, Australia, New Zealand, India, Chile, and Japan. With export-led growth in mind, Vietnamese officials have signed and continue to pursue more free trade agreements to satiate the country's appetite for broader market access.
Vietnam's economy, like those of most developing countries, has traditionally been centered around agriculture. So far, compared to other Vietnamese industries, agriculture has seen little benefit from the government's pursuit of export-led growth. Between 1996 and 2016, Vietnam's gross domestic product (GDP) rose from $24.7 billion to $205.3 billion and exports of goods increased 2,335 percent to $176.6 billion. Yet food as a share of those exports shrunk from 30.2 percent to 14.8 percent, between 1997 and 2014, as imports have risen from 5.0 percent to 8.6 percent. Similarly, agriculture as a percent of GDP dropped from 27.7 to 18.1 percent during that same period.
Ahead of the CPTPP, which will likely come into force between late 2018 and early 2019, a closer look at how Vietnam's agricultural commodity trade might further shift under the new trade deal is worthwhile.
Vietnam imported $2.5 billion worth of agricultural goods from the US in 2017, a number which has increased by 414 percent in the past decade. According to Gro's ontology, the 10 largest US agricultural export groups to Vietnam in 2017 were, by volume: oil crops (744,711 million tonnes); textiles, industrial crops, and fibers (628,568 million tonnes); paper and paperboard (416,214 million tonnes); agricultural byproducts (312,206 million tonnes); fertilizers (217,998 million tonnes); processed pulses (186,035 million tonnes); cereals (146,906 million tonnes); fruits and nuts (113,194 million tonnes); feed and fodder (98,966 million tonnes); and poultry and eggs (80,665 million tonnes).
Notably, most of those categories are composed of just one or a couple items. Raw agricultural commodities such as cotton lint, wheat, corn, temperate-growing fruits and nuts, and soybeans and their products clearly dominate US agricultural exports to Vietnam.
The CPTPP will bring Vietnam into an economic trading bloc that accounts for 500 million people and nearly 15 percent of global trade. The notable exception, of course, is the US, which would have pumped up the bloc’s numbers to 800 million people comprising 40 percent of global trade. The CPTPP will nevertheless contain Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, and Singapore, in addition to Vietnam.
Given that the US still has a bilateral trade agreement with Vietnam, US market share in Vietnam is unlikely to completely evaporate under the CPTPP. However, major grains exporters such as Australia and Canada—and to a lesser extent Chile, Mexico, Peru, and New Zealand—are both party to the deal and will now benefit from even closer ties to the Vietnamese market. Of the primary US agricultural exports to Vietnam mentioned above, many of the CPTPP members are already major exporters and are likely to increase acreage to meet new demand.
Seasonality concerns will also be addressed by the trade bloc, which spans both sides of the equator and all four hemispheres of the globe. When Australian corn is in the planting stage, for example, harvests in Canada will be reaching completion.
Nutrient-rich soils and abundant rainfall provide Vietnam with prime growing conditions across a range of climates.
Meanwhile, populations in tropical countries continue to boom, demanding and consuming more domestic produce. Unlike row crops, fruits and vegetables are often far more labor-intensive and generally have not witnessed an explosion in yields due to genetic-modification or other innovations. Fruit and vegetable farmers have already been doing well in Vietnam, joining the country's coffee, rubber, and sugar farmers by exporting record amounts in recent years. Farmers planting crops in optimal growing conditions, or in other words, those leveraging their respective geographic comparative advantages will clearly benefit the most from global trade under the CPTPP.
The farmers who will generally be hurt most by increased liberalization under the CPTPP will be those operating in limited, suboptimal conditions, such as grains producers. Vietnam produces a significant amount of soybeans and corn, but it lacks the geography and large scale operations needed to feed a population of almost 100 million people, especially at competitive prices. Rice plays a significant role in the history and culture of the country, and the government has made moves to protect it (similar to those in Japan). Whether the Vietnamese government can or even wants to do the same for domestic corn and soybean farmers, however, is yet to be seen. Moreover, although the US is not in the CPTPP, a potential trade war with China may flood Vietnam with marked-down US soybeans that have few other places to go. Regardless, Vietnam’s major staple producers should consider themselves endangered and closely ponder switching to higher value-added crops.
The real winner, however, will be the average Vietnamese citizen. A growing economy, rising wages, and improving phytosanitary regulations mean trade deals will ultimately be able to deliver a healthier and more diverse selection of food to Vietnamese consumers at lower prices.
The US and Vietnam were smart to leave any potential animosity behind when they entered into a bilateral trade agreement in 2001. US agricultural exports to Vietnam soared, and the US quickly became Vietnam’s second-largest trading partner. Both Vietnam and the US were eager to further the trend by launching the TPP, but US leadership has recently had other ideas. Although the world’s largest economy would have made the TPP even more influential and advantageous, Vietnam is prepared and driven to continue without the US. Many other major agricultural exporters are surely happy to step into the latter country’s role.
Vietnam has taken an indubitably prudent approach to both globalization and modernization of the country’s complex food and agriculture supply chain. Vietnam’s government has steadily adopted policies aimed at liberalizing their economy and increasing food safety. While they have strategically opened Vietnam’s doors to the bounty global agriculture has to offer, Vietnamese officials have also been keen to protect the country’s most valued farmers as well as to support the sectors in which their farmers can be globally competitive.
Regardless, agriculture will contribute less and less relative value to the Vietnamese economy as the country pursues trade deals and more value-added industries domestically. However, Vietnam will become far more connected to and reliant on the global economy. This means if a major economic recession or climatic catastrophe were to take place, the country may quickly find itself in the midst of a food security crisis. Gro Intelligence can help monitor whether Vietnam has ultimately found the right balance between supply and demand and which major exporters might step in to help it do so.
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