More tariffs on Vietnam would be great news for China

There is a clear consensus with regard to the fact that Vietnam has been one of the economic success stories of recent years.

The country has witnessed robust economic growth (GDP growth rate for 2018 was estimated at 7.15%, while the growth rate for 2019 is estimated at 6.6%) and has been successful in poverty reduction. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) for the first five months of 2019 reached a four year high of over $16 billion (a year on year increase of over 69%).

If one were to look at a sectoral break up of the FDI, manufacturing and processing came right on top, receiving over $10 billion.

US appreciation for Vietnam’s economic achievements

US President Donald Trump, who recently imposed tariffs on steel imported from Vietnam, stated at the APEC CEO Summit in 2017 that:

Today, an opening Vietnamese economy is one of the fastest-growing economies on Earth. It has already increased more than 30 times over, and the Vietnamese students rank among the best students in the world.

In 2019, on the sidelines of his Summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the US President, while acknowledging Vietnam’s progress, stated that North Korea could emerge as another Vietnam if it denuclearized.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had made a similar point while addressing a meeting of the US-Vietnamese business community in 2018.

Increasing FDI and factors which have contributed to it

It would be important to point out that FDI in Vietnam is also not restricted to any one particular region or city. While Hanoi (the Vietnamese capital), which drew well over $2.7 billion, and Bin Doung province in South Vietnam, are on top, North Vietnam too, is managing to draw significant investments. The shipping hub of Haiphong has witnessed significant economic growth since, after the imposition of US tariffs, a number of Chinese companies have shifted to the Shenzhen-Haiphong Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone.

Economic reforms (dubbed as Doi Moi) which began in 1986 have played a crucial role in Vietnam’s economic success. The main advantages which Vietnam has over its competitors are relatively low labor costs (though the country has witnessed a significant year on year growth in minimum wages between 2015 and 2019), increasing consumption as the result of a burgeoning middle class (currently 13% of its total population; it is estimated, by the World Bank, that in 2026 over one quarter of Vietnam’s population will be part of the middle class), and its geographical location.

Vietnam a beneficiary of the US-China Trade war and the CPTPP

Vietnam has benefited significantly from the US-China Trade war. A number of companies have shifted manufacturing operations from China to Vietnam, and others like Apple (which plans to shift anywhere between 15% and 30% of it’s iPhone production), Microsoft, Amazon, Sony, Nintendo, and Dell are likely to shift in a big way to Vietnam.

The Southeast Asian country is also gaining significantly by being part of the CPTPP. Exports to both Japan and Canada have risen significantly in the first quarter of 2019, if one were to look at the year on year figures.

US-Vietnam ties

In the past two decades ties between the US and Vietnam have improved significantly. The foundations were laid by Bill Clinton; during his first tenure, the Vietnam Foreign Ministry opened its office in Washington DC (1993), and the US State Department opened its office in Hanoi in the same year. Similarly, the US lifted its trade embargo on Vietnam in 1994. Vietnam also figured importantly in Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ and was part of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) that the US abandoned.

US President Donald Trump has given mixed signals on Vietnam. Trump has, though, referred to the geopolitical relevance of Vietnam, and it is for this reason that the US President articulated his vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific in Vietnam in 2017 (while speaking at the APEC CEO Summit at Da Nang).

In March 2018, U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson visited the port city of Da Nang for the first time since the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. Former Defence Secretary Jim Mattis visited Vietnam twice in 2018, and reiterated on both visits the increasing relevance of the Washington-Hanoi relationship.

The fact that the US President chose Hanoi for his 2nd summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was significant not just in terms of symbolism, but also in sending a message that the Southeast Asian country was strategically relevant. During his visit in 2019, Trump of course praised Vietnam for its economic success, but a number of trade deals (Boeing inked a deal of over $12 billion to sell 100 planes to Vietnamese budget carrier, Viet Jet, for example) were also arranged.

Imposition of Trade Tariffs

As a result of trade wars, Vietnam’s exports to US have also witnessed a sudden rise. Exports for the period January-June 2019 rose 27.4% year on year. The US trade deficit with Vietnam for the first six months was estimated at $25.3 billion (in 2018, this was $40 billion).

US has recently imposed tariffs of 456% on certain steel products which were imported from Vietnam. According to the US Commerce Department, certain corrosion resistant steel products and cold-rolled steel which were supposed to be manufactured in Vietnam actually underwent only minor processing in the Southeast Asian country, but used substrate of Taiwanese and South Korean origin (duties on these South Korean and Taiwanese products had been imposed in 2015 and 2016 respectively).

Imposition of tariffs by the US is not likely to end here. There are strong indicators that the US could impose further tariffs on Vietnam, citing the reason that a number of Chinese goods are rebranded there to avoid tariffs (this is dubbed as transshipment). Trump had made some harsh remarks, including in an interview with Fox News:

Vietnam is almost the single worst — that’s much smaller than China, much — but it’s almost the single worst abuser of everybody.

It remains to be seen as to what impact the imposition of tariffs will have not just on Vietnam’s economy (the increase in bilateral trade and exports), but also on the bilateral relationship which has witnessed significant improvement due to the efforts of successive US Presidents. Vietnam’s growth and prosperity is also important from a strategic perspective, as it is one of the countries which has been strengthening defense ties with the US, Japan, and India. While Vietnam does have robust economic ties with China, it also has serious differences over the South China Sea (only recently, tensions between both countries had escalated when a Chinese survey ship and coastguard vessels had entered disputed waters near the Spratly Islands).

Conclusion

Vietnam provides a good lesson for many other countries. It has stuck to the basics, and so far has been very astute in balancing out economic relationships between China and other countries. Vietnam’s real test lies in how it deals with Trump’s unpredictability, and deals with the turbulence resulting out of Trump’s brash decisions. If the US President actually slaps more tariffs on Vietnam, not only will it have an adverse impact on bilateral ties and undo all the good work of previous US and Vietnamese administrations, but fissures between Hanoi and Washington will also have an adverse impact on efforts towards promoting a Free and Open Indo Pacific. On the other hand, Beijing, the biggest loser of the China-US trade war, would certainly not mind tensions between Washington and Hanoi (which has been a big beneficiary of the trade war).

Nightcap

  1. Poetic justice with Donald Trump Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. Love it or leave it: exceptionalism for dummies Ross Douthat, New York Times
  3. How not to be an arrogant prat Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  4. Rent-seeking during the slave trade Jose Corpuz, The Long Run

Normal Joe and the 2020 Election

Sorry if this is a little disjointed. Summer has finally arrived on the California central coast. So, I have been trying to recover my toxic masculinity for the beach, not smooth sailing!

Mr Biden declared that President Trump poses an “existential threat” to the nation. This is not what bothers me because it’s unlikely Mr Biden understands the word “existential.” His team put it up for him to read or he cribbed it mindlessly from someone else’ speech, the way he does.

I am beginning to get a bad feeling about the Biden presidency for another, subtle reason so, pay attention. It’s not so much the continuing gap in the polls between him and Mr Trump, although that too, but only in the second position of my worries. What’s most disturbing is the continuing gap in the polls between Mr Biden and all other Democrat candidates.

Ex-Vice-President Biden is like a caricature of Mr Nobody. In politics for fifty years, he has mostly demonstrated a talent for being re-elected. His name is associated with few important pieces of legislation and the ones that are remembered are currently causing him problems. One such is the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, of 1994 which, critics from his party say, resulted in the needless incarceration of many black males. Of course, in his two terms as vice-president, he was vastly overshadowed by his boss, Barack Obama. The thought could cross your mind legitimately that he was selected for the post, in large part for his, this talent, a great capacity for being overshadowed.

I think I may be describing precisely the reason why he is thus far outpacing other Dem candidates. Briefly put: You can’t have everything. Mr Biden ‘s main quality is that he is – for a politician – NORMAL to the point of mediocrity. Repeating myself: In this context, mediocrity is another word for normal.

He is an older white man with a well known political track record (with little to see), one unlikely to generate surprises. His face and his voices are familiar, if nothing else because of his two terms as a vice-president. He is famous for his gaffes but that makes him perhaps a little endearing, like the dear old uncle who invariably drops cream cake on his tie at every family dinner. His main liability may well be his propensity to touch others, including children. But, hey, nobody is perfect and, one suspects, other male candidates – most of them or all of them – probably have much bigger skeletons in their closets, doesn’t every guy?

Just compare Mr Biden to the two current runners up – far behind him, Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elisabeth Warren. The first would, on the surface, also qualify as pretty normal. He looks like a handsome grandfather. He has been married to the same woman forever. He speaks well. He is abnormal mostly in a virtuous way: He did not get rich in office. But, but, most of the time, when he opens his mouth this terrible 1949 narrative comes out of it. (I chose that date because it precedes the death of Stalin and the torrent of revelations about the realities of Soviet socialism that followed it.) Mr Sanders has not learned a freaking thing in 70 years! That’s a lot, even for starry-eyed progressives. It’s a bit much even for millennials who feel existentially cheated (this word again) and thus have their own reasons to consider the absurd.

Or take Ms Warren. Actually, she had an honorable career as an academic. (I checked, little bitch that I am!) She expresses herself clearly. The bits and pieces of her extreme left-wing program make superficial sense, considered out of context, one-by-one. Tell the truth, I am a little frightened of Warren for this reason. However, I cannot believe that independents will forget or ignore the lamentable Pocahontas story. Either, she is a long distance liar who used an imagined ethnic identity to advance her career (and therefore, cheated real ethnic candidates, in the putrid calculus of racial advancement). Or, and this may actually be worse, she fooled herself for all of her adult life into believing that her archetypal WASP face was but a mask covering up strong Native American features. Her reactions on the occasion of the fiasco of her DNA analysis results make the latter explanation credible. She could have stopped publication and quickly changed the subject when it came out that her chances of having Native American genes were about the same as those of a recent immigrant from China. Instead, she dug in her heels. Ms Warren has spectacularly bad judgment. I mean that she is far from normal, that way.

So, I am telling you that Mr Biden’s advantage, perhaps his single advantage, may be that he appears normal, even impressively normal, Central Casting normal, I am tempted to say – but that would be cheap- abnormally normal. That would explain his advance against other Dem candidates in spite of the fact that he violates many tenets of current received wisdom about the Democratic Party: He is a man, an old man, white, heterosexual, (probably, he only sniffs females’ hair), not transgender, not even socialist.

Mr Biden’s normalcy may also explain the polls gap with Mr Trump in a projected one-on-one contest for the presidency. In fact, it’s difficult to think of anything else that explains both the gap between Mr Biden and his Dem rivals and the gap between himself and Mr Trump.

It’s possible that this shift in the electoral game has gone largely unperceived thus far because both left and right commentators are distracted. The pro-liberal media are entranced by the antics of the newest and of the oldest members of Congress. Surely, Bernie Sanders’ 1949 economic and social ideas are more riveting than Mr Biden’s normalcy. Certainly, the many surrealistic pronouncements by the best-looking female member of the House are more exciting than Mr Biden’s normalcy. And then, there is the continuing fascination with the left’s desire to hurt Mr Trump, somehow, sometimes, impeachment or not impeachment.

I, myself, may be typical of a mistake conservatives have been making systematically that would blind us to the importance of Biden’s normalcy. Let me explain. I am not a Trump cultist, not by a long shot. I think Mr Trump is rude, crude, unreliable in his words; I think he often speaks before he thinks, many of the things he asserts are just not true. I decided early in his administration that these kinds of features and mishaps would not bother me. I still think they are unimportant against the background of his successes that liberals don’t like, such as his two Supreme Court appointments, and next to his successes that even liberals ought to like, such as low unemployment and solid economic growth. And then, of course, there is just no way I will miss Mr Trump’s only realistic 2016 alternative, the thoroughly crooked Ms Hillary Clinton.

For the past two years, I have been on kind of automatic exercising my rationalist bias. I have been dismissing the obviously hypocritical mass media and its caste-based hatred of Mr Trump. I have treated lightly the howls of pain of the few liberals with whom I remain in contact. I have been seeing them first as expressing loser’s rage, an especially painful rage because the loss was unexpected. Second, the inability of the few liberals with whom I am still in contact to justify their howling on factual grounds also contributed to making me dismissive. Every time I asked one of them to give a single instance of Mr Trump acting illegally, or unconstitutionally, as they abundantly claimed he did, they failed lamentably. And, of course, I believe that immaturity is one of the sources of liberalism.

But, my approach may be too rational by half. When a liberal accuses Pres. Trump of being a would-be dictator, his words may not matter; he may just be expressing the depth of his indignation within the scope of a limited political vocabulary. He may be simply shouting out his disarray in the face of the abnormality of the current American political situation. His words may not mean what they are supposed to mean; they may simply mean, “I am disoriented and scared!”

So, Mr Trump’s main adversary, in 2020, may not be the uninformed and woolly socialism of the left of the Dem Party. It may not be the climate alarmism of practically all its candidates, which leaves the mass of the American public notably cool. (Yes, that’s on purpose!). It may not be the resonating but hard to pin down claim for greater equality, or “social justice.” In his 2020 campaign, Mr Trump may have to fight the lure of a return normalcy incarnated by Mr Biden. Frankly, the prospect makes me nervous.

If the coming race is all about restoring the republic to normalcy, Mr Trump’s road is going to be rocky. (Strangely, someone in his entourage seems to have such foreboding. The 6/15-16/19 Wall Street Journal describes a markedly conventional organization of the 2020 Trump presidential campaign designed to make the president appear more normal – my choice of word.)

In practical terms, in this context, the strategic questions will be as follows: Are there enough Dem voters who would not otherwise bother who will be enticed to vote by Mr Biden’s conventional looks and actions? Are there enough independents who will take the Trump policy achievements for granted, and who are rebuked by the Democratic Party’s new extremism but who will nevertheless vote Democrat because the Party’s candidate, the colorless, marginally live Joe Biden – seems normal?

And if you are one of those conservatives who airily dismiss polls because of the previous presidential campaign, think again; the pollsters called the popular vote just about right in 2016.

Tariffs and Immigration

Pres. Trump announced yesterday (6/7/19), on returning from Europe, that the threatened tariffs against Mexican imports were suspended “indefinitely.” It looks like Mexico agrees to do several things to stop or slow immigration from Central America aiming at the United States.

Well, I am the kind of guy who, on learning that he has earned the Publishers’ Clearing House Giant Jackpot immediately worries about accountants, and about where to stash the dough. So, here it goes.

Mr Trump never did specify how much Mexico would have to do to keep the threat away durably. Two problems. First, if I were the Mexican government, I would worry about his moving the goalposts at any time.

Second, – and those who hate him won’t miss it – absent specific goals, Mr Trump put himself in a position to claim a (considerable) political victory no matter what happens next. To take an absurd example, if the number of migrants from Central America decreases, by 1% in July and August, he will be able to say, “ I told you so, my tariff pressures work.” As the French say, “ Why cut yourself the switches that will be used to whip you with?”

Part of the agreement reportedly, incredibly, includes a provision that those migrants who are waiting for their American formal court appearance will be allowed to so in Mexico, and be allowed to work there while they wait. This sounds amazingly unfair to Mexico. (I sure hope some significant money changed hands in the background on the account of his provision.) Mexican public opinion is not going to respond well to this feature if it understands it.

Another feature of the agreement is that Mexico will allow itself to be designated as a third and “safe” country. This has to do with ordinary international asylum and refugee agreements language which generally specify that an asylee or refugee may not chose his country of destination but must seek legal status in the first safe country he reaches. So, for Syrians, that would be Greece, or Turkey, rather than say, Germany, or Sweden. You know how well this provision worked out in Europe! Even more seriously, Mexico is not safe by any measure: The Mexican homicide rate is more than five times higher than that of the US – which is itself not low. (Wall Street Journal, 8-9 2019, p. A6). Imagine what it will be against an alien, vulnerable population.

As I write, Mexico is already deploying its National Guard on its southern border to impeach passage. This is a brand new force; it has no experience; expect accidents or worse. When this happens, it won’t play well with the Mexican public. The southern border of Mexico is short, only about 150 miles but still, the Mexican National Guard has only 6,000 members, total.

American conservative opinion remains badly confused about the facts of immigration in general. This, in spite of my own valiant efforts. ( See my “Legal Immigration Into the US” – in 37 short parts, both in Notes on Liberty and on my blog. Ask me for the blog’s name via jdelacroixliberty@gmail.com.) On Friday evening (6/7/19), in less than 30 minutes, I heard two different Fox News commentators refer to the migrants arriving in caravans from Central America and that are overwhelming our national processing capacity as “illegal immigrants.” That’s wrong. People who run after the Border Patrol to turn themselves in as a prelude to their claiming asylum are not illegal immigrants. There is nothing illegal about such acts, however you deplore them. And, in our constitutional tradition, nothing can be deemed retroactively as against the law. If we don’t like what the law currently produces, we must change the law. Period.

I used to hope for a wholesale, inclusive change in our immigration laws. I now think this is not going to happen in a bi-partisan manner because there are still many Dems who deny the obvious: We are currently facing an immigration crisis. If the plight of would-be immigrants held in overcrowded facilities or let loose in strange cities without resources, does not move their hearts, nothing will. I now think the administration should opportunistically seek piecemeal reform as may be facilitated by temporary situations. Big change will not happen until the GOP gains control of both houses of Congress, in addition to the Presidency. I believe that equivalent Dem control would not make immigration reform possible because there are too many liberal ideologues and too many Dem politicians who want open borders, for different reasons.

One more thing: Mainstream conservatives and some spoiled libertarians have been clamoring on the social media that tariffs are wrong, always wrong, wrong, no matter what. They point out rightly that tariffs are first and foremost taxes on the consumers of countries that impose them. I am myself completely persuaded of the merits of free trade as a means to maximize production. This does not prevent me from seeing that trade pressures, including the imposition of tariffs, can be used to extract advantages from other countries. In fact, I suspect such maneuvers may often be the best alternative to military pressure. In this case, and temporarily, I understand, Mr Trump’s tariff mano-a-mano with the tough leftist Mexican president, seems to have borne fruit. So, I would like the never-never–never tariffs people on my side to provide a rough estimate of how much this particular tariff action – against Mexico – may have cost American consumers, total.

It’s no longer the economy, but we are still stupid

Motivated Reasoning, Public Opinion, and Presidential Approval‘, an interesting new paper forthcoming in the journal Political Behavior (summarized here), by Kathleen M. Donovan, Paul M. Kellstedt, Ellen M. Key, Matthew J. Lebo finds that support for sitting presidents has become increasingly misaligned with national economic expectations. Rather than being a sign of voters realizing that presidents play little role determining economic performance, they attribute this to increased partisan polarization.

I think this is a compelling account. All I would add is a potential causal mechanism. My current favorite dimensions for analyzing democratic trends in the developed world is demography. Voters are ageing. When retired, they tend to have much less direct involvement with the productive economy than when they were working. On average, the elderly are quite rich and living off entitlements they have acquired during their working lives. So they are both less reliant on current economic opportunities and less knowledgeable of them. This means their personal costs of partisanship, relative to good policy, is lower than it used to be. And this is what lets all the culture-war nonsense creep into people’s decision functions.

An optimist turns pessimistic

I won an essay contest back in my undergraduate days for an essay on optimism. I understand that poverty worldwide is on the run. I understand that none of us have suffered through a devastating worldwide war like most of our ancestors did. In many ways, we have it good.

But Donald Trump is still President of the United States of America. I still remember waking up to the news that he had beat Hillary Clinton. It was surreal (it didn’t help that I was living Austin, where everything is a bit foggier, brain-wise).

Unlike Jacques, who seems to be so in love with Trump that he would get down on his knees and do whatever Trump wanted him to do, I don’t like Donald Trump. I don’t think he’s done a good job. I don’t even care that the left-leaning press is dishonest when it comes to reporting on his administration. I think this is the difference between libertarians like me, who lean more to the left, and libertarians like Jacques and Bruno, who lean more to the right.

Jacques and Bruno are not really defending the Trump and Bolsonaro administrations. And they’re not really speaking up for these two administrations because they hate leftists more than they like liberty. Guys like Jacques and Bruno care more about Truth than anything else, and the global mainstream media’s narrative skews left and is often dishonest.

Me? I’ve grown accustomed to dishonesty in media. I’ve also grown accustomed to ignorance. I pick and choose which dishonest or ignorant bits I want to challenge. When journalists write or say something about guys like Trump or Bolsonaro that are blatantly wrong, I make a mental note of the dishonest nature of the reporting, but that’s about it. Guys like Trump and Bolsonaro are bad for liberty, after all. I’d rather focus on the mainstream press’ dishonesty when it comes to people like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. The fawning over her is at least as concerning as the dishonest portrayals of Trump or Bolsonaro.

Left-wing populism is just as bad as right-wing populism, and everybody in the democratic world is going to be stuck with populism for quite awhile. Truth is on its way out the door, and I don’t know if it’ll be back in my lifetime.

Nightcap

  1. Trump’s wall and the legal perils of “emergency powers” Ilya Somin, Volokh Conspiracy
  2. Can Trump spin a wall from nothing? Michael Kruse, Politico
  3. In defence of conservative Marxism Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  4. We must stand strong against the men who would be kings Charles Cooke, National Review