Can Vietnam Avoid Getting Hurt in the Crossfire When the Tariffs Are Flying?
When elephants fight, the ants perish: The Khmer proverb captures the sense of peril in the escalating trade war between the United States and China. The world’s two superpowers have locked tusks over tariffs, and the rest of the world — especially Asia — seems in danger of being trampled. As the trade war heads into its third month, with the United States set to impose a new tranche of $200 billion in tariffs this fall, expanding the conflict fourfold, one truth is clearer than ever: In a globalized economy, nothing exists in isolation. There is no such thing as a trade war of surgical strikes, in which tariffs hit their targets and leave everything around them unscathed. In its attempt to punish China for unfair trade practices and to reduce a $375 billion trade deficit, the Trump administration is also inflicting harm on some of America’s allies in Asia — forcing them, like ants under the elephants’ feet, to scramble in search of escape.
Consider the predicament of Vietnam. China and the United States, which each have their own violent histories in Vietnam, are now that country’s most important trading partners. Together, the giants gobbled up roughly 35 percent of Vietnam’s exports last year, furthering its transformation from sleepy purveyor of rice and coffee to manufacturing hub. When the trade war broke out, so did the ominous headlines in Hanoi. A rapid devaluation of the Chinese yuan sparked a brief run on Vietnam’s currency and a drop in its stock market. Rumors spread about an influx of cheap Chinese consumer goods and the threat of American protectionism spreading in ways that would affect Vietnam’s vital exports. And there was a tangible concern: Nearly $5 billion of Vietnamese exports are part of China’s value-added supply chain, meaning they may feel the impact of being exposed to punitive American tariffs.
Soon another sort of reaction began taking place. Driven by the dangers of the trade war, many foreign companies with stakes in China — those ants underfoot — have started shifting production away from China to Southeast Asia. One sign of this development was on display in mid-July, when a group of visitors showed up on Vietnam’s northern coast near Ha Long Bay. The men in white shirts and dark ties were not tourists. They represented 72 Japanese businesses, in industries ranging from textiles to electronics, and they were looking for economic refuge. “Many of these Japanese firms have been operating in China,” Nguyen Duc Tiep, an official from the local-investment promotion center, told a Vietnamese magazine. “They want to expand their investment markets out of China to shun risks caused by the nation’s rising production costs and by the U.S.-China trade war, which is making it hard for Japanese firms to export their products to the U.S. from China.”