Among the potential partners in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Vietnam is the only country that bans independent labor unions and religious groups. It’s the only country considered one of the world’s worst violators of Internet freedom. It harbors severe child labor and forced labor violators, and regularly jails and tortures dissidents who speak out for human rights, political inclusion or the right to simply practice their religion. These reasons alone should give members of Congress pause before waiving their power to amend and critically analyze trade pacts like the TPP through regular order.
Proponents of granting trade promotion authority argue that free trade will bring freedom and human rights to Vietnam. Or they say we must reward a new partner willing to assist in containing one country’s — in this case, China’s — aggressive expansion of influence in the region.
We heard these arguments used by those in favor of easing trade restrictions to Bahrain just a few short years ago. Congress was told that free trade for Bahrain would help end the brutal crackdown on union members, political opposition leaders and doctors who provided medical care to protestors during the Arab Spring. But predictably, despite opening barriers to trade, we’re still waiting empty-handed for meaningful reforms.
We heard similar arguments 15 years ago about China, but the reality is that increased trade has failed to bring about either political liberalization or permanent improvements in human rights. On the contrary, according to the Congressional-Executive China Commission, last year was one of the worst in recent memory for human rights abuses.
The truth is, Vietnam’s inclusion in the TPP cannot guarantee the spread of human rights, free speech, an open Internet or any other political freedoms. That’s because these are the exact freedoms the Communist Party leaders in Hanoi fear the most and will cling to the longest.
Rather, if the past is any indicator, Vietnam will regress from political liberalization as soon as it gains preferential trade status. In 2007, after the United States lifted its long-standing objection to Vietnam’s membership in the World Trade Organization, Hanoi responded by launching the first of three waves of arrests that jailed more than 100 dissidents and introduced sweeping new laws restricting freedom of association, assembly and the Internet. In short, Vietnam’s WTO membership allowed the Communist government free license to jail, torture and abuse.
It is essential that any trade agreement with Vietnam as a party must include binding measures to meet International Labor Organization standards and to improve human rights and Internet freedom. Furthermore, given that Vietnam lacks independent courts and prosecutors, or a free press and civil society to investigate violations or enforce the laws, all TPP measures must be fully enforceable with the ability of nongovernmental actors to initiate enforcement actions adjudicated outside of the Communist-controlled court system.
This is doubly important because enforcement of trade provisions by presidents of both parties — going back 20 years — have been less than robust. Most recently, according to the Government Accountability Office, the U.S. has been slow to press human rights, environmental and labor terms in Bahrain, Morocco and Honduras. Without the ability of nongovernmental actors to initiate enforcement actions adjudicated outside of the Communist-controlled court system, there is little reason to expect anything other than more of the same in Vietnam.
The people of Vietnam are not simply a cog in the United States’ “Asia pivot.” While the U.S. and Vietnam certainly share security interests in keeping the South China Sea open and free of Chinese control, this alone is not reason to reward Vietnam with lower tariffs and increased import access to U.S. markets. Given a shared border and Communist Party pedigree with China, it’s hard to imagine Vietnamese opposition to Beijing being anything other than tenuous and short-lived.
We cannot engage in wishful thinking, not at the cost of American jobs and U.S. interests in improved human rights around the world. Vietnam shouldn’t get a free past to enter the TPP, and Congress owes the U.S. public, the citizens of Vietnam and the citizens of oppressive regimes around the world to cede no authority that will prevent us from scrutinizing this pact to ensure the best possible deal for human rights, transparency, openness and freedom around the world.
Smith has represented New Jersey’s 4th Congressional District since 1981. He sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee and is co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Lofgren represents California’s 19th Congressional District and has served in the House since 1995. She sits on the Science, Space and Technology, and the Judiciary committees.