It’s been more than 40 years since the United States pulled out of Vietnam, leaving hundreds of thousands dead. In those 40 years, communist-controlled Vietnam has also solidified its place as a burgeoning business power. The country currently has the 55th largest GDP in the world. Within 10 years, Vietnam will be the 17th largest economy in the world.
“When you’re looking at that kind of tremendous growth, you as a local economy or a local business want to sell into an area that has growth,” said Al Li, vice president of global trade finance at Regions Bank for the Midwest. “There is no other place in the world that is growing as fast as Southeast Asia that is also friendly to do business.”
With this in mind, Li, who is also president of the St. Louis Asian American Chamber of Commerce, organized a week-long trip for 10 members of the chamber and other local business leaders to visit Ho Chi Minh City as part of a trade delegation from the St. Louis region.
The trip was designed to develop economic ties between businesses in St. Louis and Vietnam, particularly with a group called the CEO Club of Vietnam, which gave participants access to decision makers in the country.
Vietnam is a country rich in textiles manufacturing and low-cost manufacturing, said Li. St. Louis, on the other hand, has “tremendous” products and a handle on professionalized industrial design, which is starting to matter more and more in the Southeast Asian economy.
John Clark, the president and CEO of St. Charles-based Masterclock, was one of the delegates on the trade mission. He had done some business in Vietnam before, but it was his first time visiting the country in that capacity. Meeting people face-to-face showed him the country has an appetite for higher-end goods and people who can put those goods to work in a way that works with the Vietnamese culture.
“We’ve already seen an uptick in potential business just from having this meeting,” Clark said. “I’m already signed up for next year.”
For Li, this trip was not just about shoring up relationships with Vietnam — it was about establishing an entrance into the Southeast Asian market, comprised of about 600 million people. Enterprise Holdings, which is based in St. Louis, was also part of the delegation as they look to open up their rental car business in Southeast Asian countries.
“Even though it is a communist nation, it is a very stable government and very market-friendly,” Li said.
The future of local trade with Vietnam without TPP
The trip, which took place from Nov. 8-12, also afforded the delegates to be in the country while the results of the U.S. election rolled in. Vietnam is one of the 12 countries who would be part of the Obama Administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would comprise 40 percent of the world’s trade.
President-Elect Donald Trump ran on a platform of undoing the TPP, which led to many questions of the St. Louis delegates. As Li relayed:
“I was at a table sitting next to the general counsel to Thailand and she leaned over and said ‘What is going on in your country? Are they not wanting to do business in Asia anymore?'”
Li said he hoped the Trump administration would realize that only four of the 12 countries involved in TPP are Asian.
“It is a tremendous opportunity for the U.S. to enter in the market,” Li said. “If the U.S. doesn’t step in to participate, it may pivot toward China. That’s what the TPP was trying to support: to hedge into the hegemony of China. … Trump is a businessman. I’m hopeful the rhetoric does not match the action.”
Li said that many of the companies producing goods for export are actually doing work in rural areas. The TPP, he believes, would support rural workers in helping their goods penetrate Asian markets.
If you talk to business people in Vietnam, Li said, they don’t concentrate on politics — they want to know where they can grow revenue for their company.
“That’s my concern,” Li said. “We’re trying to develop these ties between the U.S. and Vietnam and if we shove our hand in their face, they may pivot to the other major economic superpower, China. They’ve been looking for some foreign direct investment from the U.S., but most foreign direct investment comes from Korea, Japan and now China as well. China will be a major player in our world economy, but I’d like to see the U.S. invest in Southeast Asia for more jobs here.”
The next four years
St. Louis was the only American city represented at the meetings with the CEO Club of Vietnam, a group of CEOS for large companies in the country. Li hopes that the competitive edge like this that local trade groups, like the St. Louis Asian American Chamber of Commerce, can provide St. Louis businesses will help sway the United States from being “protectionistic” when it comes to trade.
“It can only add jobs in the St. Louis area,” Li said. He hopes that rhetoric will sway more in favor of trade deal like the TPP in the future, because of what it will mean for blue collar workers in manufacturers.
“It takes business leadership to influence politics,” Li said.
Clark thinks the support available to businesses in Missouri is unrivaled. He is optimistic, thinking that if the different trade groups located in the area band together in alignment for different trade deals, the St. Louis market will grow to be a great place to do international business no matter the administration.
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