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Talking Trade blog

Lipstick, bicycle chains and durians: All free trade agreements are not the same


Published 08 December 2015

Free trade agreements (FTAs) have been mislabeled—they ought to have been called preferential trade agreements (PTAs) instead.  The agreements are not so much about “free” trade as they are about giving preferences or benefits to member state firms that non-member firms do not receive.  The net effect might be more “freeing” but this is not the same thing as giving the same set of benefits for everyone. 

We can argue about whether or not granting different access to various partners is helpful or harmful.  Rather than engage in a philosophical discussion about the merits of global vs. regional vs. bilateral trade deals, this post highlights differences in one important element of existing trade agreements:  various tariff preferences granted for specific products into just one country.  Showing how existing trade agreements signed by Vietnam handle the same limited set of products like lipstick, bicycle chains and durians helps illustrate variations across FTAs.

The primary outcome of existing FTAs has been to grant member firms lower tariffs than non-members receive.  FTAs may do lots of other economic things, including opening up markets for services or investment or creating new commitments or rules for intellectual property rights or competition policy.  But most of the focus and use of existing FTAs has been to receive lower tariffs (that can be thought of as a tax on imports) than firms could receive before an FTA came into existence.

Whenever we assess “quality” of an FTA, a key element is the extent to which the agreement provides new market access for firms by lowering tariffs on goods.  Countries can agree to make no new commitments at all—the existing tariff on imported goods in a category remains unchanged (at the MFN level that applies to all WTO members).  Or countries can agree to lower tariffs in certain product categories.  They can do so all at once at the very beginning of the deal or they can do so gradually over time (in even stages or in “lumpy” reductions where a tariff might drop a little bit up front and steeply at some distant time). 

More ambitious deals generally offer 1) deeper tariff cuts on 2) more products in 3) a shorter time frame.  Because FTAs are the result of negotiations, the content of any individual FTA varies—all parties have to agree on the final commitments.

As newer agreements get signed, the old agreements are not retired.  Instead, companies can opt to use whatever deals provide the most useful benefits for their products.  For many products, FTAs provide no difference in tariffs as the MFN rate is already 0.

But for other items, FTAs do provide benefits that can vary by agreement.  To see how this works in practice, consider specific products that firms may want to export to Vietnam.  Vietnam has multiple agreements in force, mostly centered on ASEAN.  The country has enthusiastically been signing new deals, including the TPP and a bilateral agreement with the EU and another with South Korea, but these have not yet taken effect.

A company that wants to ship lipstick into Vietnam from a country with no existing FTA has to pay the MFN rate of 20%.  But firms in ASEAN can ship lipstick into Vietnam with no tariff at all using ATIGA.  The ASEAN-China agreement (ACFTA) also allows Chinese companies to ship lipstick duty free to Vietnam. 

As with any FTA, firms do have to meet rules of origin (ROO) criteria to be eligible to receive lower tariffs.

Korean companies currently have no benefits for lipstick in their ASEAN-Korean FTA (AKFTA).  This means that, while many Korean products receive lower tariff rates on products using this agreement, lipstick exporters are out of luck and must pay the MFN rate of 20%. 

Japanese exporters are granted a slight duty reduction at 20% in the ASEAN deal (AJCEP) but a bilateral agreement between Vietnam and Japan gives Japanese companies an improved deal at 14.5% (VJEPA). 

Australian and New Zealand (AANZFTA) companies get access to the lipstick market of Vietnam with a 10% duty and India receives (AIFTA) a reduction to 20%. 

Under the TPP, the 11 parties in the agreement can look forward to 0 duties, but only after the current rate drops in four equal installments across 4 years.  Hence, in relatively short order, Japanese, Australian and New Zealand companies can expect to receive the same 0 duty preferences that their ASEAN competitors already receive.  Since the TPP will grant better benefits than existing deals, firms should start using the TPP.  For American or Mexican or other TPP lipstick companies that only had MFN rates before, the post-TPP preferences are especially important.

Vietnamese customers might be asking whether all these trade deals mean that they can expect to pay less for lipstick in the future.  The answer is that they might—if firms decide to pass the tariff savings through into lower prices.  Firms could also opt to keep the savings in the form of higher profits or greater shareholder returns. 

It’s also possible that lipstick manufacturers will not take advantage of FTAs, as the market in Vietnam is not attractive enough—for whatever reason—to ship lipstick no matter how high or how low the tariffs might be on the product.

The same uneven set of benefits can be seen for other firms shipping goods to Vietnam.  Bicycle chains are surprisingly complicated, with multiple categories of chain.  For a roller chain of expanded metal (HS73151111), the MFN rate is 40%.  ASEAN firms pay a 5% duty.  Chinese firms pay 20%.  Korean firms have no specific benefits under AKFTA and pay 40%.  Japanese firms (under both the ASEAN agreement and the bilateral deal), Australian and New Zealand firms all pay 35%.  Indian firms are charged 36%.  TPP members will pay 0 duty in four years.

Durians and many other fruits are subject to an MFN rate of 30%.  But ASEAN, Chinese, and Korean farmers can ship durians duty free now.  Japanese firms get better benefits under the ASEAN agreement than the bilateral (20% vs. 22.5%).  Australia and New Zealand are currently subject to 10% tariffs on durians and Indian companies pay 20%.  Post-TPP entry into force, however, members will pay 0 duties immediately for durian shipments to Vietnam.

The examples show the differences across trade agreements.  For most products where the existing MFN rate is higher than 0, ASEAN already grants duty free access to Vietnam.  Some of the existing trade agreements match these 0 tariff rates or at least provide lower tariff levels than non-FTA members receive.  Since the TPP is both broader and deeper than existing agreements for Vietnam, firms should expect better benefits (or tariff cuts that match ASEAN) for nearly all products either on entry into force of the agreement, or in the near term. 

© The Hinrich Foundation. See our website Terms and conditions for our copyright and reprint policy. All statements of fact and the views, conclusions and recommendations expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the author(s).


Dr. Elms is Head of Trade Policy at the Hinrich Foundation in Singapore.  Prior to joining the Foundation, she was the Executive Director and Founder of the Asian Trade Centre (ATC). She was also President of the Asia Business Trade Association (ABTA) and the Board Director of the Asian Trade Centre Foundation (ATCF).

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