An Urban's Rural View
Vietnam: Eyeing a Feed-Importing Powerhouse
As recently as the 1970s, the United States and North Vietnam were waging a war that claimed 58,000 American lives and a million or more Vietnamese lives, including many civilians. Today Vietnam is one of the largest markets for U.S. ag exports, ranking seventh, eighth or ninth in recent years. (https://www.fas.usda.gov/…)
It's not that the war is completely forgotten. Remains of Americans missing in action in Vietnam continue to be found and returned. The U.S. continues to clean up residues of the Agent Orange herbicide our military used to defoliate jungles and expose enemy hiding places.
If you've been to Vietnam since the war, you know that the Vietnamese hold surprisingly few grudges. I spent some time in the country during the 1990s. I never met anyone who showed any sign of hating Americans.
This lack of animosity may be because the Vietnamese won the war. It's always easier for victors to turn the page. Distance may also make Vietnamese hearts grow fonder. Some are more concerned about the behemoth on their border, China, with which they fought an inconclusive border war in 1979, than the U.S.
"You're not our enemy," a senior Vietnamese official told me in Hanoi on the day the U.S. and Vietnam normalized their diplomatic relations in 1995. "China is."
To be sure, that blunt assessment was just one official's personal view. It wasn't national policy, then or now. Today Vietnam has territorial disputes with China over islands in the South China Sea but the two countries have strong economic ties and are brothers in Communist-party rule.
As a matter of policy Vietnam, like many a medium-sized, independent-minded country, is wary of domination by anyone and open to playing stronger powers off against each other.
Still, the lack of negativity towards the U.S. on the part of the Vietnamese people is noteworthy considering the history. There's even public-opinion polling suggesting many Vietnamese are pro-American.
In a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, Vietnam topped the international list, with 84% of those polled expressing a favorable view of the U.S. Some 71% agreed that "It's good that American ideas and customs are spreading here," again leading the world list. (https://www.pewresearch.org/…)
In a 2015 Pew poll, 76% of Vietnamese had a favorable view of the U.S. and 95% thought most people are better off in a free-market economy. (https://www.pewresearch.org/…)
The economic benefits Vietnam garners from trading with the U.S. may explain some of the positivity. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. imported $101 billion of goods from Vietnam in 2021. (https://www.census.gov/…)
To put $101 billion in perspective, Vietnam's exports to the U.S. equal a quarter of its gross domestic product. They're growing rapidly; in 2018 the U.S. only imported $49 billion in goods from Vietnam.
Moreover, Vietnam runs a huge trade surplus with the U.S. America's 2021 exports to Vietnam totaled only $11 billion. More than a quarter of them were agricultural.
Could Vietnam become a much larger market for U.S. ag as the U.S. and China decouple?
The country has a lot of mouths to feed -- 98 million. Its per capita income is less than $4,000 but growing rapidly, which means Vietnamese are eating more meat and in need of more animal feed.
According to a 2019 USDA report, "Vietnam's hog and poultry production has grown the fastest compared to the rest of the region, and the country is projected to continue to be Southeast Asia's largest producer of pork into the next decade ..." (https://www.ers.usda.gov/…) Another USDA report refers to Vietnam as "a feed importing powerhouse." (https://www.fas.usda.gov/…)
All that makes the market sound promising. Consider, though, that adjusted for population size Vietnam is already importing almost as much as China from American farms and ranches. Consider, too, yet another USDA report pointing out that "Vietnam is a challenging market with fierce competition, complex regulations, high import tariffs, and heavy bureaucracy." (https://apps.fas.usda.gov/…)See a DTN story from last year about Vietnam tariffs and trade with U.S. at https://www.dtnpf.com/….
It's a delicate calculation, then, whether Vietnam is a market worth doubling down on. There are reasons for both optimism and pessimism.
Could Uncle Sam help? A former U.S. trade negotiator, speaking off-the-record, suggests leaning on the Vietnamese to give U.S. ag products as good a deal as competitors have gotten from regional free-trade agreements. Although the U.S. doesn't want to join those arrangements, the U.S. market is so important to Vietnam as to justify a demand for equal treatment, this former official argues.
I am not competent to assess that tactic's chances of success. For geopolitical reasons the U.S. might want to avoid trade tensions with Vietnam. But if it could be done in a non-bullying way, it might work. It's at least worth thinking about.
Who knows? Perhaps officials there would like Americans to feel as favorably towards Vietnam as many Vietnamese do to the U.S.
Urban Lehner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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