26 Nov 2017

Insight: TPP - The deal that never dies?

From Insight, 8:10 am on 26 November 2017

The new Trans Pacific Partnership is promising business better access to a US$10 trillion market of 500-million consumers. Vietnam's entrepreneurs are among those hoping that's the case, as Patrick O'Meara found out when he was in the resort city of Da Nang for top level APEC and TPP  trade talks.

Vietnam's PM, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, presents Jacinda Ardern with a personal portrait

Vietnam's PM, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, presents Jacinda Ardern with a personal portrait Photo: RNZ /Patrick O'Meara

I am not a shopper.

Even before entering the landmark Han market in the coastal city of Da Nang in Vietnam, I start to feel anxious. Crossing the busy road, full of unpredictable motorbikes and cars, to get to the multi-level building that houses the hoards of merchants inside seems a portent of things to come.

I wish I was somewhere else. Even a panel decision on resource efficiency and sustainable growth.

Well, maybe not quite.

The welcome sign is lit up at a mall in Da Nang

The welcome sign is lit up at a mall in Da Nang Photo: RNZ /Patrick O'Meara

Still, it's an intimidating spot. The Han market, which officially opened in 1940, is the place to do business.

It heaves with merchants selling all sorts: clothes, shoes, jewellery, groceries, coffee and knick-knacks. If you wander around the back you find women working furiously on sewing machines.

It's exhausting. You're assailed by the heat, the noise, the people, and the sheer amount of stuff for sale, which is piled precariously high in each stall.

And like any merchant worth their salt, the Han market retailers don't wait for you to approach them. They're watching carefully for their next potential sale and if you have money in your pocket (and cash is king), then you are worthy of their attention.

And not speaking Vietnamese is no barrier where commerce is concerned.

Stand still for one minute and it's a signal that you're interested. And offers come thick and fast. Goods are shoved at you. Do I need coffee? Maybe a banana print shirt? The price, rest assured, is a bargain.

packets of dired food

Han Market in Da Nang in Vietnam Photo: RNZ /Patrick O'Meara

It's a scene played out throughout the towns and cities of Vietnam, and many of the countries that make up the new Trans Pacific Partnership, rebranded the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

The new TPP covers nearly 500 million people and the 11 countries involved make up 14 percent of global economic activity, or about $US10 trillion.

If the trade pact is successfully concluded, lower barriers and standardised rules are expected make it easier for businesses to sell their goods and services in these markets.

Line up of flags

Journalists wait to hear latest in TPP negotiations. Photo: RNZ /Patrick O'Meara

Vietnam is keen for its firms to take advantage of that. It knows the dangers of being economically dependent on one nation, having relied on the Soviet Union and latterly, China. The new TPP would give them access to a broader set of markets.

It is also a nation of entrepreneurs. Small and medium-sized firms (SMEs) comprise about 98 percent of businesses in the south-east Asian country, 40 percent of economic activity, and 50 percent of employment.

Yet the bustling Han market remains a testament to the essence of business, where people buy and sell every day.

Certainly, it is a far cry from the APEC CEO summit which took place near Da Nang's famed resort beaches only a short distance away.

Some 2000 of the region's richest and powerful business people attended this year's air-conditioned, orderly and well-catered gathering, to hear from world leaders and fellow chief executives.

Infinity pool down to the coast

Leader's accommodation at Da Nang in Vietnam Photo: RNZ /Patrick O'Meara

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made an appearance, as part of a panel that discussed resource efficiency and sustainable growth.

The attendees are well-educated, urban, and well-dressed, and the conversation and debate is erudite and thoughtful as they tackle the bigger trends affecting the business community.

But not all the time.

US president Donald Trump managed to ruffle feathers when he spoke at the summit, and accused America's trade partners of taking advantage of his country.

"[That] was quite upsetting to some of the business people around me, because we are people who understand trade and that wasn't very understandable language coming from the president," New Zealand delegate Phil O'Reilly said.

In contrast, China's president, Xi Jinping painted himself as a champion of economic openness and globalisation.

"There was a lot of clapping and he was using all the language that business would support," Mr O'Reilly said. "A really remarkable turnaround on what you would have seen, say, 10 years ago sitting in the same room."

The drama surrounding the Trans Pacific Partnership also transfixed those at the summit.

News that Canada didn't show up as expected to a vital TPP leaders meeting had tongues wagging.

"Right outside, in the very next building, it looked like TPP had fallen over," Mr O'Reilly said. "You're getting texts, emails, voice messages from colleagues. Members around me from the TPP nations were whispering and talking among themselves."

It was "an extraordinary time to be in the room", he said. "You felt like you were at the centre of the world."

A few hours later, the deal been resurrected and the rebranded Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership was delivered as all but done.

"The reaction I had was one of relief that we'd managed to pull this baby home, potentially," Mr O'Reilly said.

"The reaction around the room from other members was very excited, actually. Excited that we're managed to do this thing."

clinets eat at stainless steel bench around  food vendor

Busy food court Da Nang Vietnam Photo: RNZ /Patrick O'Meara

At Da Nang's Han market, most of its retailers were oblivious to what was happening at APEC.

They remained intent on the potential shopper in front of them.

This customer left the banana print shirt alone. I went with a tee shirt of the former leader Ho Chi Minh on the front. After all, I was in Vietnam.

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