“Real Exchange Rate and Firm Productivity: The Case of Vietnamese Manufacturing” by Mihn Hong Phi

 

 

2022/98 “The U.S. Coast Guard in the South China Sea: A Vietnamese Perspective” by Nguyen The Phuong

 

The future of Vietnam-U.S. defense and security cooperation relies on meaningful policies that can meet both sides’ needs in the South China Sea and beyond. In this picture, military aircraft including F/A-18 fighter jets are parked on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, anchored off the coast in Danang, Vietnam, on 5 March 2018. Photo: LINH PHAM/AFP.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  • The future of Vietnam-U.S. defense and security cooperation relies on meaningful policies that can meet both sides’ needs in the South China Sea and beyond. A deeper engagement of the U.S. Coast Guard in Southeast Asia can be a promising avenue toward that end, especially given China’s “grey zone” tactics to gain de facto control over disputed waters in the South China Sea.
  • A comprehensive engagement by the U.S. Coast Guard in the South China Sea can be seen by Vietnam as a catalyst that effectively enhances the bilateral relationship and contributes to the evolving regional security architecture.
  • As a leading power with a network of allies and security partners, Washington should demonstrate that it can find innovative ways to deal with unprecedented challenges. But to engage effectively with Vietnam, the United States should be patient and needs to diversify its engagement methods, including through multilateral coast guard cooperation arrangements.
  • For Vietnam, strengthening its security partnership with the United States requires bold thinking and actions. At the same time, the two countries should also look for new and feasible cooperation initiatives to deepen mutual trust and strengthen practical cooperation in mutually beneficial areas.

*Guest writer, Nguyen The Phuong, is a PhD Candidate in Maritime Security at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia. He is also a Lecturer at the Faculty of International Relations, Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics and Finance (UEF).

ISEAS Perspective 2022/98, 6 October 2022

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INTRODUCTION

Although diplomats from both Vietnam and the United States have given special prominence to the two countries’ growing comprehensive partnership, many challenges remain.[1] In particular, despite gradual concrete improvement in recent years, defense and security cooperation has not met expectations. Vietnamese policymakers’ indecisiveness and their exaggerated fear of potential retaliations from China have been cited by analysts as reasons why they hesitate to actively push for significant breakthroughs in bilateral defense and security ties.[2]

The future of Vietnam-U.S. defense and security cooperation relies in part on meaningful policies that can meet both sides’ objectives in the South China Sea and beyond. If the United States undertakes projects that can have a real and profound impact on the South China Sea situation that is favourable for Hanoi, Vietnam would respond positively. The author’s personal dialogues with both Vietnamese and U.S. scholars and officials reveal the need for practical collaborative projects that can boost bilateral defense ties, increase Vietnam’s confidence in Washington’s regional commitments and effectively tame China’s assertive behaviour in regional waters. One of the possible avenues for the two sides to conduct such projects is through the increased engagement of the United States Coast Guard (USCG) in Southeast Asia’s maritime domain. This article discusses how Vietnam can and should play a proactive role in the shaping of such an initiative.

A MEANINGFUL PROJECT: USCG IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA

In March 2019, the USCG cutter Bertholf joined a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Curtis Wilbur, to transit the Taiwan Strait for the first time. Two months later, the same vessel conducted a maritime exercise with the Philippine Coast Guard near Scarborough Shoal. Another USCG cutter, the Stratton, has been deployed alongside the U.S. 7th Fleet in Yokosuka, Japan. In 2021, the USCG cutter Munro, part of the U.S. 7th Fleet, conducted engagements with Japanese and Filipino navies and maritime enforcement agencies.[3] According to Vice Admiral Michael McAllister, as a military service of the United States, the USCG can integrate seamlessly into defense operations alongside the Navy and other services.[4]

U.S. coast guard cooperation with Southeast Asian countries has been ongoing for some time.[5] For example, Washington has provided technical assistance, financial support, training and capacity-building to regional maritime law enforcement agencies, including Vietnam’s, through selective maritime security institutions such as the Southeast Asia Maritime Law Enforcement Initiative (formerly known as the Gulf of Thailand Maritime Law Enforcement Initiative) or the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative.[6] However, these initiatives were not designed for the U.S. to initiate strategic reorientation toward the Indo-Pacific maritime domain. It seems that Washington considers these coast guard cooperation activities less important than other maritime security priorities,[7] although the U.S. Coast Guard 2018-2022 Strategic Plan did call for steps to “strategically orient time and resources toward international activities that maximize return on investment to national and Coast Guard priorities; and foster international capacity-building efforts in regions that are […] critical to U.S. interests”.[8]

Despite the abovementioned activities and the importance of Southeast Asia for U.S. maritime strategy, the USCG did not have “even a single operational vessel west of Guam”.[9] This changed in May 2022 when President Biden hosted the U.S. – ASEAN Special Summit, where Washington announced that a USCG vessel would be assigned to the region to operate as a “training platform”, provide multinational crewing opportunities and participate in cooperative maritime engagements.[10] A regional-based technical training team will also be established to provide capacity building in the areas of institutional development, readiness, sustainment of equipment and workforce professionalism.[11] Where their assets will be based remains unclear, but it is highly likely that Guam will be the operational centre for the USCG’s activities in Southeast Asia.

The permanent presence of an official USCG detachment in the South China Sea could be the first step for a deeper engagement of the USCG in Southeast Asia.[12] Based on previous experiences between USCG and regional maritime law enforcement agencies, such a service can help establish a multi-national task force of paramilitary and civilian agencies for upholding international law and combating illegal activities at sea, while fending off Chinese assertiveness by mirroring Beijing’s tactics. However, the deployment should be assigned to one of the regional countries, not at a base outside the South China Sea. Such a comprehensive engagement by the USCG will likely be considered by Vietnamese policymakers as a meaningful project that, as explained in the next section, not only effectively enhances the bilateral relationship, but also encourages Hanoi to proactively contribute to the evolving regional security architecture.

Since the United States conducted its first Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) mission in the South China Sea in 2013, Vietnamese policymakers have carefully observed U.S. military activities in the region. Several of them, mostly within the military, have not been impressed. They perceive the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy at best as lacking substance in dealing with China’s unconventional tactics at sea, and at worst as lame-duck thinking that can do nothing to constrain China’s rise.[13] Several U.S. scholars have also raised questions about the effectiveness of FONOPs, considering them insufficient in preventing2022 Beijing from using the “grey zone” tactic in the South China Sea.[14]

Any “breakthrough” initiatives that involve Vietnam in the maritime security domain will need to meet two requirements. First, the policy of “4-nos and 1-depend” highlighted by Vietnam in its 2019 Defense White Paper needs to be upheld.[15] In other words, such initiatives should not generate the impression that Hanoi is banding with Washington against Beijing. Fortunately, the “1-depend” principle provides some flexibility for Vietnam to hedge against China.[16] It opens the door for deeper defense cooperation and creates a sense that existing limitations, or restrictions, in security and defense cooperation between the two countries are subject to changes.  

Second, Vietnam’s concerns behind its hesitance to conduct meaningful security cooperation with the United States need to be addressed. An interlocutor within the U.S. Coast Guard once told the author that “every country in Southeast Asia wants the U.S. to lead, but they don’t want to be led by the U.S., and Vietnam is a particularly good example of that.” This could be an overstatement, but it does, to some extent, reflect the strategic thinking of many regional countries. The reluctance of most Southeast Asian states to get closer to the United States mainly results from China’s increasing political, economic and military influence in the region. Indeed, Hanoi deliberately restricts military cooperation with Washington because “it was afraid of sending a wrong signal to Beijing”.[17] This fear, exacerbated by strategic distrust, becomes a huge obstacle to meaningful cooperation between Vietnam and the United States.

Against this backdrop, increasing USCG’s engagement with Vietnam’s diverse maritime forces in the South China Sea could be the right step toward expanding maritime cooperation between the two countries. Unlike the Navy, the coast guard, as a softer tool for maritime enforcement, can help reduce the “sensitiveness” that inherently informs Vietnam’s concern regarding maritime security cooperation with America. And, as argued below, it may also be a relevant tool to counter China’s “grey zone” tactic in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

VIETNAM LIKELY TO SUPPORT USCG ENGAGEMENT IN SOUTH CHINA SEA

Both Vietnam and the United States need to appreciate that China will pursue “war by other means”. Indeed, many Vietnamese strategists seem to believe that Beijing does not want to fire the first shot in any war, conventional or nuclear. Instead, such “grey zone” tactics have been a cornerstone in China’s maritime strategy in the Indo-Pacific since 2009, and have enabled Chinese maritime forces to incrementally change the status quo without firing a single shot.[18] The United States, as the leading superpower, imagines victory in a high-intensity war in the Western Pacific, and has devoted resources to ensure that scenario. However, China does not need to go to war to assert its control over regional waters. Therefore, the United States must invest in relevant capabilities to counter Chinese “grey zone” coercion.

Vietnam has been mirroring China’s approach in the South China Sea, albeit on a smaller scale. Vietnam’s coast guard fleet and fisheries resources surveillance force are among the largest in Southeast Asia. They have been at the forefront of nearly every recent confrontation with Chinese maritime forces at sea.[19] However, one of the main disadvantages of the Vietnam Coast Guard is its limited number of vessels and their relatively small size. The continuous presence of USCG cutters in the South China Sea may help ease the pressure on smaller regional coast guards, including Vietnam’s, especially in international waters around the Paracels and the Spratlys. The frequency and intensity of confrontation may increase, but the nature of “white-hull” forces allows them to avoid the dire diplomatic and military risks that their “grey hull” counterpart (i.e., naval forces) may otherwise have to face.

The permanent presence of a powerful law enforcement force like the USCG in the South China Sea may also soften the suspicious attitude towards U.S. intentions and commitments to the region among regional countries. Because of the constabulary and less militaristic nature of white hulls, it may also be easier for Vietnam to accept some form of maritime security network in which coast guards play a central role. Such an arrangement may focus on dealing with less sensitive issues such as protecting the environment and maritime resources, combating piracy, armed robbery and illegal fishing.

Such a network of like-minded maritime law enforcement partners could play an essential role in strengthening and expanding the maritime domain awareness capabilities of Vietnam’s maritime forces. Since 2016, the United States has provided nearly US$100 million in capacity-building assistance to help strengthen Vietnam’s maritime domain awareness and its presence in its waters in the South China Sea. This involves the provision of professional training as well as equipment such as coastal radars or unmanned aerial systems.[20] Maritime domain awareness is not only about sharing technology, know-how or intelligence but also about networking and actual joint activities to improve regional security. Vietnam has generally been hesitant to join regional joint-patrol schemes. However, this may change if ASEAN maritime member countries and the United States, along with its traditional allies such as Japan or Australia, come up with a well-planned and well-executed mini-lateral initiative with coast guard forces acting as lead players. The first operations of such an initiative could take place in the southern part of the South China Sea, where Vietnam and other Southeast Asian maritime countries have been actively participating in other initiatives involving the United States such as the annual Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) exercise, or many other workshops and exercises hosted by the Indonesian Coast Guard in partnership with the USCG.

One could even expect a more open attitude from Vietnamese officials towards the concept of “places not bases”, where white-hull cutters instead of naval warships will be welcomed. Currently, Singapore is considered the best option for this concept within the boundary of the South China Sea as it already hosts a significant U.S. Navy presence, as well as rotationally deployed ships. Vietnam can offer an alternative option for supplies in case the USCG wishes to deploy a permanent detachment to the region. Several ports in southern Vietnam, especially Phu Quoc Island or Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, may welcome USCG cutters if they dock for supplies or replenishment before sailing off to conduct patrol missions in the South China Sea or moving to other places. Visits to these locations would be less politically sensitive as these are located in areas where non-traditional maritime security issues, such as illegal and unregulated fishing activities, piracy, or environmental degradation, are common. Moreover, the USCG and other regional coast guards can also use them as logistical hubs, especially in joint-patrol missions, which helps to further legitimize their involvement in the initiative.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

Memories and experiences from the socio-economic crisis in the 1980s created two enduring security concerns that came to shape Vietnam’s security mindset. Economic collapse gave rise to reformist “new thinkers” who believed that market-oriented reforms and international integration were needed to transform the country’s frail economy. It also created a sense of insecurity among the conservative “old thinkers” because the legitimacy of the Communist Party of Vietnam, which is in part based on socio-economic performance, was severely undermined. However, the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s imbued among the conservatives a high level of skepticism towards liberal ideas embraced by the “new thinkers”.

The success of any meaningful maritime security initiative between Vietnam and the United States therefore relies heavily on the attitude the dogmatic “old-thinkers” might hold towards it. Washington has always been considered by Hanoi as a valuable “comprehensive partner”, especially in terms of economic and maritime cooperation. But one of the factors that has caused Vietnam to be hesitant in upgrading bilateral ties to the “strategic partnership” level is the conviction among certain old thinkers that the United States remains a potential threat to the Party’s regime security. American officials have been frustrated with the overcautious attitude of their Vietnamese counterparts, as this has hampered security cooperation between the two countries.

However, mutual trust has been improving in recent years, helping to ease the old thinkers’ suspicion towards the U.S. intentions in strengthening defense and security ties with Vietnam.[21] Depending on the level of trust, Washington should treat the issue of coast guard cooperation patiently or push it through a multilateral initiative that includes several ASEAN stakeholders such as Indonesia or the Philippines in order to make Vietnamese officials more comfortable with such collaboration projects.

On the part of Vietnam, strengthening the security partnership with the United States requires bold thinking and action. Hanoi should not passively wait for cooperative opportunities with Washington to emerge. There have been growing voices from regional scholars urging Vietnam to take up a leadership role in areas where it has strength, including maritime security.[22] Washington has recently clarified its positions on maritime disputes in the South China Sea and decried China’s maritime claims there as “unlawful”, paving the way for more concrete policies against Beijing.[23] Vietnam, as a main claimant state with a large stake in the South China Sea, should be bold and quick in defining its role in the regional maritime domain and looking for new initiatives to address the evolving maritime challenges. Its paramilitary and civilian maritime forces can lead the way by joining an active network of regional coast guard forces that includes the USCG to promote its national interests and uphold the rules-based international maritime order.

ENDNOTES


[1] Bich T. Tran (2020), Will We See a US-Vietnam Strategic Partnership?, The Diplomat, https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/will-we-see-a-us-vietnam-strategic-partnership/.

[2] The Phuong Nguyen (2019), Vietnam’s Need to Become a Proactive Middle Power, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, https://amti.csis.org/vietnams-need-to-become-a-proactive-middle-power/.

[3] USNI News, US Coast Guard Continues to Expand Presence in the Western Pacific, https://news.usni.org/2021/09/03/u-s-coast-guard-continues-to-expand-pressence-in-the-western-pacific.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Amy E. Searight (2020), U.S. Coast Guard cooperation with Southeast Asia: Maritime Challenges and Strategic Opportunities”, Statement before the US Congress, Center for Strategic & International Studies, https://www.congress.gov/116/meeting/house/110649/witnesses/HHRG-116-PW07-Wstate-SearightA-20200310.pdf.

[6] US White House (2015), FACT SHEET: U.S. Building Maritime Capacity in Southeast Asia, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/11/17/fact-sheet-us-building-maritime-capacity-southeast-asia.

[7] Herzinger, 2019.

[8] U.S. Department of Defense (2018), Coast Guard Strategic Plan 2018-2022, https://media.defense.gov/2018/Nov/16/2002063979/-1/-1/0/USCG_STRATEGIC%20PLAN__LORES%20PAGE_20181115_VFINAL.PDF.

[9] Blake Herzinger (2019), Reorienting the Coast Guard: A Case for Patrol Forces Indo-Pacific, War on The Rocks, https://warontherocks.com/2019/11/reorienting-the-coast-guard-a-case-for-patrol-forces-indo-pacific/.

[10] US White House (2022), FACT SHEET: U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit in Washington, DC, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/05/12/fact-sheet-u-s-asean-special-summit-in-washington-dc/.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Herzinger, 2019.

[13] Author’s interview with Vietnamese military officers, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City, December 2021.

[14] For instance, see Zack Cooper & Gregory B. Poling (2019), America’s Freedom of Navigation Operations are Lost at Sea, Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/08/americas-freedom-of-navigation-operations-are-lost-at-sea/.

[15] This policy refers to Vietnam’s principles of no military alliances, no siding with one country against another, no foreign military bases on its soil, and no using of force or threatening to use force in international relations. At the same time, Vietnam also stressed that “depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Vietnam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defense and military relations with other countries”. See Vietnam Ministry of National Defence (2019), 2019 Vietnam National Defence, http://www.mod.gov.vn/wps/wcm/connect/08963129-c9cf-4c86-9b5c-81a9e2b14455/2019VietnamNationalDefence.pdf.

[16] The Phuong Nguyen (2019), Vietnam’s 2019 Defense White Paper: Preparing for a Fragile Future, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, https://amti.csis.org/vietnams-2019-defense-white-paper-preparing-for-a-fragile-future/.

[17] Do Thanh Hai (2021), Vietnam and China: ideological bedfellows, strange dreamers, Journal of Contemporary East Asian Studies, Vol 10, Issue 2, p. 174.

[18] According to the Australian Department of Defense, grey-zone activities are “coercive statecraft actions short of war. The grey-zone is a mainly non-military domain of human activity in which states use national resources to deliberately coerce other states. States achieve grey-zone goals using multiple, apparently unrelated innocent/low attributable, mutually-supporting and synchronized statecraft techniques below the threshold of war. Grey-zone campaigns seek to exploit adversaries’ weaknesses and suppress adversaries’ response options, all the while achieving tangible national strategic aims”. See more at “Grey Zone”, The Perry Group, Australian Defense College, https://theforge.defence.gov.au/perry-group-papers/grey-zone.

[19] The Phuong Nguyen (2020), Vietnam’s Maritime Militia is not a Black Hole in the South China Sea, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, https://amti.csis.org/vietnams-maritime-militia-is-not-a-black-hole-in-the-south-china-sea/.

[20] U.S. Department of State (2021), U.S. Security Cooperation with Vietnam, https://www.state.gov/u-s-security-cooperation-with-vietnam/.

[21] On the trust-building process between Vietnam and the United States over the past three decades, see Ted Osius (2021), Nothing is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam, Rutgers University Press.

[22] Ralf Emmers & Huong Le Thu (2021), “Vietnam and the search for security leadership in ASEAN”, Asian Security, Vol 17, Issue 1, pp. 64-78. See also, Joshua Bernard B. Espena & Don McLain Gill (2020), Indonesia and Vietnam: The Quest for ASEAN Leadership, Geopolitical Monitor, https://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/indonesia-and-vietnam-the-quest-for-asean-leadership/.

[23] Zack Cooper and Bonnies S. Glaser (2020), What Options are on the Table in the South China Sea, War on the Rocks, https://warontherocks.com/2020/07/what-options-are-on-the-table-in-the-south-china-sea/.

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2022/81 “The Roots of Cambodia’s Actions against Illegal Vietnamese Immigrants” by Jing Jing Luo and Kheang Un

 

Since 2015, the Cambodian government has been addressing the politically and diplomatically sensitive issue of illegal Vietnamese immigrants through methods such as documentation, deportation, eviction, relocation and registration. In this picture, Cambodia’s Prime minister Hun Sen (R) and his then Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc (L) inspect the guard of honour during a welcome ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on 4 October 2019. Photo: Nhac NGUYEN/AFP.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  • Since 2015, the Cambodian government has been addressing the politically and diplomatically sensitive issue of illegal Vietnamese immigrants through methods such as documentation, deportation, eviction, relocation and registration.
  • These actions are the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s response to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s successful politicisation of anti-Vietnamese sentiments among Cambodian voters.
  • The Cambodian government’s Vietnamese immigrant policies also serve the ecological development goal of improving Cambodian water systems, as well as beautifying and developing its urban areas.
  • Given Cambodia’s asymmetrical power relationship with Vietnam and the sensitive issue of illegal Vietnamese immigrants, the closer bond between Cambodia and China serves as an enabling factor for the Cambodian government in adopting tougher policies.
  • The Cambodian government’s measures will however neither reduce the fear held by many Cambodians of Vietnamese domination nor will they alleviate the potential diplomatic fallout.

*Jing Jing Luo is Post-Doctoral Researcher at the School of Public Affairs, Xiamen University, China. Kheang Un is Professor of Political Science at Northern Illinois University, USA.

ISEAS Perspective 2022/81, 11 August 2022

INTRODUCTION

Since 2015, the Cambodian government, under the control of the Cambodian People’s Party (CCP), has taken measures to address the long-standing issue of Vietnamese immigrants living in Cambodia. These measures include documentation, deportation, eviction, relocation and re-registration of Vietnamese immigrants. Against this backdrop, extant literature has focused on controversies over alleged violations of the human rights of Vietnamese immigrants, their liminal citizenship status, and anti-Vietnamese sentiments in Cambodia.[1] Unlike these works, this article offers a preliminary analysis of under-discussed factors that underlie the Cambodian government’s current policies towards Vietnamese immigrants. These include: (1) the Cambodian National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) successful politicisation of anti-Vietnamese sentiments among voters; (2) Cambodia’s improved state capacity and changing needs; and (3) Cambodia’s narrowing power gap with Vietnam due to increasingly close Sino-Cambodian relations.

BRIEF HISTORY OF ETHNIC VIETNAMESE IN CAMBODIA

The influence of the Vietnamese court over Cambodia in the 1600s made possible the settlement of ethnic Vietnamese in the country. French colonisation of Indochina in the 19th century further facilitated the movement of ethnic Vietnamese into Cambodia. Particularly, French colonial policies of agro-industry development and administrative consolidation led to the recruitment of ethnic Vietnamese to staff the French colonial bureaucracy and work in the rubber plantations in Cambodia.[2] The French colonial administration also encouraged Vietnamese traders to settle in Cambodia. A significant Vietnamese population continued to live in Cambodia following Vietnam’s independence from France in 1945. The Vietnamese community in Cambodia subsequently grew, to approximately 450,000 members by 1970.[3] Between 1970 and 1979, this minority group faced state-sanctioned anti-Vietnamese campaigns, which led to the expulsion of approximately 200,000 ethnic Vietnamese to Vietnam under the Lon Nol regime (1970-1975). Still worse, the ultranationalist Khmer Rouge government forced many to flee to Vietnam and undertook ethnic cleansing policies against those remaining in Cambodia.[4]

Following the Vietnamese military intervention in Cambodia in 1979, many ethnic Vietnamese who had previously been forced to leave Cambodia returned. In addition to these returnees were new Vietnamese immigrants who moved in to settle in Cambodia. The Khmer resistance movements against the Vietnamese army and the new People’s Republic of Kampuchea claimed that a “settler colonization of Cambodia” was occurring. Hoang Minh Vu contests such a claim, arguing that the movement of people from Vietnam to Cambodia in the 1980s was the outcome of a “refugee crisis” caused by an “economic collapse” associated with “draconian economic, monetary, land, and political reforms” imposed on southern Vietnam by the communist government following the unification of the country in 1975.[5] He further states that “There was no need for the Vietnamese government to institute a policy of settler colonialism; people were simply voting with their feet.”[6] This is the locus of the controversy over ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia. Independent sources estimate the number of ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia to be between 400,000 and 700,000.[7] These immigrants engage in diverse economic activities such as trade, retail, carpentry, mechanical repair, restaurants, construction, and fishing. A large number of them live on floating houses on rivers and lakes, particularly the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong and Bassac Rivers. There is a widespread belief among Cambodians that most ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia are not descendants of those who had lived in the country before the war. Rather, they were those who accompanied the invading Vietnamese army in 1979 and their descendants, or more recent immigrants.

Since 2015, the Cambodian government has identified approximately 70,000 Vietnamese who possess “irregular administrative documents”.[8] The new immigration laws require that these people apply with a fee for a residency card, which is subject to renewal every two years; in year seven, they are eligible to apply for citizenship.[9] The Cambodian government has also tightened its immigration policies and, since 2015, has expelled 5,223 Vietnamese from the country.[10]

CAUSES OF ACTIONS AGAINST ILLEGAL VIETNAMESE IMMIGRANTS

Countering the CNRP’s Rise

Since Cambodia allowed multi-party elections in 1993, ethnic Vietnamese have become one of the core campaign issues for opposition parties. They link the presence of ethnic Vietnamese to Vietnam’s alleged broader intention of “swallowing Cambodia”. Such claims resonate among many Cambodians, given the long history of animosity between the two countries and Cambodia’s loss of territory to Vietnam’s southward expansion. Given the absence of exit polls and survey data on voters’ behaviour, the effectiveness of opposition electoral appeals to anti-Vietnamese sentiments is unknown. However, the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) multiple-year surveys on Cambodians’ opinions about the future of Cambodia allow us to gauge the general appeal of the opposition parties’ anti-Vietnamese rhetoric. The IRI surveys indicate that many Cambodians considered “illegal immigrants” a pressing issue for Cambodia, to a level as salient as issues of corruption, inflation, nepotism, poverty, and the environment.[11]  Moreover, in 2013, 17 percent of respondents to the IRI Survey ranked “illegal immigrants” as the reason for Cambodia moving in the wrong direction.[12]

Therefore, the issue of Vietnamese illegal immigrants has been, in Dr. Kin Phea’s words, “a political wound for the CPP”.[13] Arguably, the CPP government’s indecisiveness in addressing the issue offered the opposition the pretext to label the CPP “a Vietnamese puppet”; this cost the party much popular support in the 2013 national election.[14]

It should be noted that prior to the 2013 national election, the issue of Vietnamese immigrants on the CPP’s electoral performance was mitigated by several other factors. The first was divisions within the opposition camp. These, compounded by an electoral system that favours large political parties, offered the CPP an advantage in capturing votes.

The second factor was the CPP’s institutional and resource strength which permitted it to maintain nationwide and top-down patronage networks, and thus electoral domination.[15] In the years leading up to the 2013 national election, however, rapid socio-economic transformation lessened the CPP’s domination. Population growth in recent decades meant that youth constituted the majority of voters. Being more educated, more politically active and engaged, and more mobilized as a result of information technology, Cambodian youth began to seek changes to the status quo dominated by the CPP.[16]

The third factor was the merger of the Human Rights Party and the Sam Rainsy Party into the CNRP—a union that offered the opposition a united rural and urban front. These changes, compounded by the CNRP’s intensified politicisation of the issue of Vietnamese immigrants, boosted the party’s electoral gains in the 2013 general election to a level that shocked the CPP. Particularly, in areas with large numbers of Vietnamese immigrants, the CNRP outperformed the CPP.[17] It was the first time that an opposition party was able to expand into and deepen its electoral footprints in rural Cambodia, the CPP’s stronghold.[18] It was at this critical juncture that the CNRP became a clear and present danger to the CPP. These conditions forced the CPP to initiate new policies to strengthen state capacity, promote economic development, and address the issue of Vietnamese immigrants.

Development Goals and Increased State Capacity

If Vietnamese immigrants had been only an electoral issue for the CPP, then logically any measure to address it would not have been necessary following the dissolution of the CNRP in 2017. However, as suggested earlier, one of the factors that undermined the CPP’s electoral performance in 2013 was Cambodians’ dissatisfaction with the CPP’s patronage-based development and its low state capacity. With the dissolution of its main political opponent—the CNRP—the CPP realised that its future legitimacy and thus political domination rest on its ability to strengthen state capacity and promote broad-based economic development, improve social order, and strengthen national sovereignty. To improve state capacity, the CPP has focused on strengthening state revenue mobilisation. Tax revenue increased substantially from 12.1 per cent of GDP in 2013 to 15.25 per cent in 2016, 19.4 per cent in 2019,[19] and 20 per cent in 2020.[20] Indicators of governance effectiveness significantly improved by 46.15 percentage points (from -0.91 in 2013 to -0.46 in 2020).[21] Such increased state capacity allows the government to address its development goals, including improving Cambodian water systems, beautifying cities and towns, and restoring order so as to attract investment.

Beginning in 2012, as part of the government’s development plan, Phnom Penh and provincial capital cities were required to enter a contest for the most “beautiful city”. Provincial governors’ and city mayors’ potential promotions rested in part on their provinces’ success in beautifying their provincial capitals. Furthermore, it should be noted that “cleaning up” the floating communities (that were primarily but not exclusively ethnic Vietnamese) in Phnom Penh opened up prime real estate areas along the river for investment, particularly from China. In Kampong Chhnang, floating communities are also located in the vicinity of the provincial capital. “Messy” floating communities, whose members raised fish in cages, allegedly contaminated the areas’ ecosystems, violated people’s sense of orderliness, and consequently reduced the value of nearby properties and investments.[22] These floating communities included ethnic Vietnamese, Khmer, and Cham (also called Khmer Islam). Thus, city development and environmental improvement necessitated the eviction and relocation of Vietnamese people along rivers and lakes.

Sino-Cambodian Relations: An Enabling Factor

Given the historically close ties between the two countries’ ruling parties—the CPP and the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV)—Vietnam and Cambodia have maintained comprehensive cooperation on key issues, including trade, security and diplomacy.[23] Two-way trade turnover has been increasing steadily since the early 2000s. Vietnamese exports to Cambodia grew from US$81 million in 2000 to US$182 million in 2005, US$501 million in 2010, US$1.682 billion in 2017 and US$2.725 billion in 2019.[24] Cambodia’s exports to Vietnam also increased substantially from US$20 million in 2000 to US$46 million in 2005, US$96 million in 2010, US$326 million in 2017, and US$359 million in 2019.[25] By 2019, Vietnam had become Cambodia’s third-largest trading partner after China and the United States.[26] Vietnam is currently the third largest investor in Cambodia after China and South Korea.[27]

Diplomatically, the two countries have also maintained high-level party and government dialogues.[28] Vietnam is a key CPP security partner, providing assistance in terms of training and medical care for senior Cambodian military officers. During Cambodia’s border conflicts with Thailand in 2008 and 2011, Vietnam provided security assistance—albeit limited in scope—in response to requests from the Cambodian government.[29] Moreover, the ruling parties of the two countries have worked closely to combat forces deemed “hostile” and “unfriendly” toward their respective governments.[30]

At the same time, there are also issues that can potentially disrupt the seemingly close Vietnam-Cambodia relations. Apart from the issue of Vietnamese immigrants in Cambodia, some segments of the two countries’ border have not been demarcated, allowing border disputes to persist. These are challenging issues within the context of the asymmetrical power relationship between the two countries. Since Vietnam is more powerful than Cambodia, the latter needs to exercise caution to avoid drawing reactions from the former in ways that could have a negative impact on Cambodia’s security and economic interests. Such reactions could be Vietnam’s non-cooperation on border issues or military training, for example.

But Cambodia’s asymmetrical power relationship with Vietnam began to change in the early years of the 21st century when the rise of China provided new opportunities for Cambodia to balance against its more powerful neighbours, Vietnam and Thailand, and Western powers. China became Cambodia’s natural ally given its economic potential and ideological appeal. Cambodia has also been a beachhead for China’s soft-power projection into Southeast Asia.[31] In 2010, China and Cambodia upgraded their relations to the level of a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. Consequently, the volume of two-way trade rose from US$1.4 billion in 2010 to US$9.53 billion in 2020.[32] During the same period, China’s aid to Cambodia rose from US$54.1 million in 2010 to US$420.56 million in 2020, while its investment in Cambodia jumped from just over US$1 billion[33] in 2010 to US$2.96 billion in 2019.[34] Sino-Cambodian military relations have also been strengthened, evidenced by increases in military aid, training and annual joint military exercises.[35] China also funded the renovation of Ream Naval Base, which has drawn much scrutiny and suspicion of China’s geostrategic ambitions.[36] Apparently, closer Sino-Cambodian relations have provided Phnom Penh with more leverage, and enabled it to narrow its perceived power gap with Vietnam. Cambodia has therefore been able to reassert its sovereignty and tackle the sensitive issue of Vietnamese immigrants without being too concerned about reprisals from Vietnam.[37]

The Vietnamese government has not publicly protested over the Cambodian government’s immigrant policies. Rather, it has extended its support by assisting poor Vietnamese to pay the residency card fees, and creating employment opportunities for those resettled from Tonle Sap Lake through Vietnamese companies operating in Cambodia.[38] Arguably, the lack of public protests by the Vietnamese government suggests that Vietnam is concerned that confrontation with Cambodia over the issue might push the latter further into China’s orbit. Given its ongoing territorial conflict with China in the South China Sea, and past efforts by China to encircle Vietnam through its alliances with Democratic Kampuchea, the Vietnamese government seems to fear history repeating itself.

CONCLUSION

Vietnam’s past territorial expansion and wars with Cambodia have made ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia an explosive political issue, even reaching the level of state-sanctioned discrimination and massacre in the 1970s. The extent of the Cambodian public’s satisfaction with their government’s recent actions against Vietnamese immigrants, as well as the Vietnamese government’s reactions, remain to be seen. If the 70,000 Vietnamese who have been granted temporary residency are denied citizenship status and deported to Vietnam, there will likely be a strong reaction from the Vietnamese government. However, many Cambodians will be frustrated if expulsions do not occur. The citizenship status of the thousands of Vietnamese living in Cambodia remains a controversial issue and therefore, anti-Vietnamese sentiments will continue to be salient in Cambodia for the foreseeable future. 

However, the Cambodian government’s recent policy of granting temporary residency to Vietnamese living in Cambodia with the possibility for them to become Cambodian citizens is a step in the right direction in resolving a long-standing and contentious issue.

It should be noted that such a policy is effective only when the governments of both Cambodia and Vietnam undertake two additional measures. First, the two governments need to strengthen joint efforts in patrolling their porous borders to combat the flow of new illegal Vietnamese immigrants into Cambodia. Second, the Cambodian government needs to strengthen the capacity of, and reduce the venality within its immigration agency.

ENDNOTES


[1] See, for example, Christoph Sperfeldt, “Minorities and statelessness: Social exclusion and citizenship in Cambodia.” International Journal On Minority And Group Rights 27, no. 1 (2020): 94-120; Ben Mauk, “A People in Limbo, Many Living Entirely on the Water”, The New York Times Magazine, 28 March 2028, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/03/28/magazine/cambodia-persecuted-minority-water-refuge.html.

[2] David Chandler, The History of Cambodia, (Oxford, UK:Routledge, 2008).

[3] Ramses Amer, “The Ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia: A Minority at Risk?” Contemporary Southeast Asia 16, No. 2 (1994), p. 214.

[4] Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79 (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2002).

[5] Hoang Minh Vu, “Vietnam’s Near Abroad? Vietnam-Cambodia Relations in Historical and Regional Perspective, 1975-present”, paper presented at the Annual Association of Asian Studies, March 2019.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Minority Rights Group International, Cambodia: Ethnic Vietnamese, at https://minorityrights.org/minorities/ethnic-vietnamese/.

[8] Ate Hekstra and Meta Kong, “Vietnamese in Cambodia: Stateless, discriminated and in fear of deportation”, LICAS.NEWS, 15 September 2015, https://www.licas.news/2020/09/15/vietnamese-in-cambodia-stateless-discriminated-and-in-fear-of-deportation/.

[9] Ibid.

[10] General Department of Immigration, Foreigner Deportation Statistics, 2015-2022. Kheang Un’s personal communication.

[11] International Republican Institute, Survey of Cambodian Public Opinion, 30 November-15 December, 2011, at https://www.iri.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/201220May201020Survey20of20Cambodian20Public20Opinion2C20November203020E2809320December20252C202011.pdf; 12 July-6 August, 2010, at https://www.iri.org/wp-content/uploads/legacy/iri.org/2011 January 20 Survey of Cambodian Public Opinion, July 12-August 6, 2010.pdf.

It should be noted that the survey does not explicitly refer to “illegal immigrants” as Vietnamese, but based on extant literature and the authors’ own research, it is certain that respondents equate “illegal immigrants” predominantly to illegal Vietnamese immigrants.

[12] International Republican Institute, “Survey of Public Opinion.” 12 January-February 2, 2013, at https://www.iri.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Cambodian20Poll20920Final20PUBLIC.pdf.

[13] Dr. Phea Kin, Director, International Relations Institute, Royal Academy of Cambodia, interview with authors, 7 April, 2022.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Kheang Un, Cambodia: Return to Authoritarianism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019). See also David Craig and Kimchoeun Pak, “Party Financing of Local Investment Projects: Elite and Mass Patronage”, in Cambodia’s Economic Transformation, edited by Caroline Hughes and Kheang Un (Copenhagen, Denmark: NIAS, 2011), pp. 219-244.

[16] Caroline Hughes and Netra Eng. “Facebook, Contestation and Poor People’s Politics: Spanning the Urban–Rural Divide in Cambodia?” Journal of Contemporary Asia 49, no. 3 (2019): 365-388.

[17] Dr. Phea Kin, interview with authors via Zoom, 7 April 2022.

[18] Kheang Un, Cambodia.

[19] World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/GC.TAX.TOTL.GD.ZS?locations=KH (accessed 20 April 2022).

[20] Ministry of Economy and Finance, Annual Review Meeting, “Report on Monitoring and Evaluation of Implementing PFMRP and Q4 and 2021 PFMRP Program.” March 23, 2022 (power point presentation, in Kheang Un’s possession).

[21] These indicators measure “perceptions of the quality of public services, the quality of the civil service and the degree of its independence from political pressures, the quality of policy formulation and implementation, and the credibility of the government’s commitment to such policies”. The score ranges from -2.25 (weak) to +2.25 (strong). For more details, see World Bank, Worldwide Governance Indicators, at http://info.worldbank.org/governance/wgi/Home/Documents (accessed 20 April 2022).

[22] Cambodian researcher, interviews with authors via Zoom, 03 April 2022.

[23] Steve Heder, “Cambodia–Vietnam: Special Relationship against Hostile and Unfriendly Forces.” In Southeast Asian Affairs 2018, edited by Malcolm Cook and Daljit Singh (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2018), pp. 113–32.

[24] World Integrated Trade Solution, Cambodia, at https://wits.worldbank.org/CountryProfile/en/Country/KHM/StartYear/2015/EndYear/2019/TradeFlow/Import/Indicator/MPRT-TRD-VL/Partner/VNM/Product/all-groups (accessed 20 March 2022).

[25] World Integrated Trade Solution, Cambodia, at https://wits.worldbank.org/CountryProfile/en/Country/KHM/StartYear/2015/EndYear/2019/TradeFlow/Export/Indicator/XPRT-TRD-VL/Partner/VNM/Product/all-groups (accessed 20 April 2022).

[26] World Integrated Trade Solution, Cambodia, at https://www.google.com/search?q=cambodia+largest+trading+partners&rlz=1C1HIJC_enUS838US838&oq=Cambodia+largest+trading+&aqs=chrome.0.0i512j69i57j0i390l3.8320j1j4&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8 (accessed 20 April 2022).

[27] U.S. State Department of State, 2021 Investment Climate Statements: Cambodia, at https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-investment-climate-statements/cambodia/#:~:text=Investment%20into%20Cambodia%20is%20dominated,by%20the%20end%20of%202020 (accessed 20 April 2022).

[28] Heng Kimkong, “Cambodia-Vietnam Relations: Key Issues and The Way Forward,” ISEAS Perspective, no 36, 2022, 12 April 2022, at /articles-commentaries/iseas-perspective/2022-36-cambodia-vietnam-relations-key-issues-and-the-way-forward-by-kimkong-heng/ (accessed 20 April 2022).

[29] Chanborey Cheunboran. Cambodia’s China Strategy: Security Dilemmas of Embracing the Dragon. Routledge, 2021.

[30] Heder, “Cambodia–Vietnam.”

[31] Jing Jig Luo and K. Un, “Cambodia: Hard Landing for China’s Soft Power?” ISEAS Perspective, Issue 2020, no. 111, 6 October 2020, at /wp-content/uploads/2020/09/ISEAS_Perspective_2020_111.pdf (accessed 22 April 2022).

[32] OEC, Cambodia/China, at https://oec.world/en/profile/bilateral-country/khm/partner/chn?redirect=true (accessed 21 April 2022).

[33] Prak Chanthul, “China Pumps Up Cambodia Economy, but at What Cost?” Reuters, 05 April 2011, at https://www.reuters.com/article/idINIndia-56123620110405 (accessed 26 April 2022).

[34] Heimkhmera Suy, “No Simple Solution to China’s Dominance in Cambodia.” East Asia Forum, 26 December 2020, at https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/12/26/no-simple-solution-to-chinas-dominance-in-cambodia/ (accessed 24 April 2022).

[35] Jing Jing Luo and Kheang Un, “China’s Role in the Cambodian People’s Party’s Quest for Legitimacy”, Contemporary Southeast Asia 43, no. 2 (2021): 395-419.

[36] Ellen Nakashima and Cate Cadell, “China Secretly Building Naval Facility in Cambodia, Western Officials Say,” Washington Post, 6 June 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/06/06/cambodia-china-navy-base-ream/.

[37] Cambodian Researcher, interview with authors via Zoom, 03 April 2022.

[38] Hoang Minh Vu, interview with authors, 3 October 2019. See also Kheang Un and Jing Jing Luo, “Cambodia in 2019: Entrenching One Party Rule and Asserting National Sovereignty in the Era of Shifting Global Geopolitics.” In Southeast Asian Affairs 2020, edited by Malcolm Cook and Daljit Singh (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2020), pp. 117-134.

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2022/79 “How the Party-State Retains Controls over Vietnam’s Blossoming Media Landscape” by Dien Nguyen An Luong

 

Of the top ten most-read online news sites in Vietnam, VnExpress has been the most popular. Picture: FaceBook Page of Vn Express, https://www.facebook.com/congdongvnexpress, accessed on 4 August 2022.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  • Most of the popular news sites in Vietnam are currently run by three private tech conglomerates, namely FPT, Zalo/VNG and VCCorp. On the face of it, this situation poses a challenge to the Vietnamese party-state. But in fact, there are no signs that these tech companies have ventured into editorial independence.
  • The nexus between tech conglomerates and the Vietnamese party-state has augmented, not curtailed, new constraints on the media, with the former being subject to market pressures while remaining answerable to and at the mercy of propaganda officials.
  • Vietnamese authorities have justified the controversial Press Shakeup Blueprint 2025 as a much-needed move to overhaul the bloated bureaucracy and overlapping ownership that have plagued the news industry. While legitimate to some extent, critics of the blueprint point out that it is a testament to how the Vietnamese party-state has constantly looked to weaponize regulations to induce news uniformity and instill self-censorship across the board.
  • The façade of innovation of Vietnamese news outlets should not be interpreted as a harbinger of a more independent press. In fact, its continued strong control over mainstream media is emblematic of how the Vietnamese party-state has sought to engineer a superficial openness to camouflage a tighter grip on public discourse.

* Dien Nguyen An Luong is Visiting Fellow of the Media, Technology and Society Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. Point of disclosure: before being appointed a Visiting Fellow, he worked for Thanh Nien, VnExpress and Zing News, the news organizations analysed in this paper.

ISEAS Perspective 2022/79, 5 August 2022

Download PDF Version

INTRODUCTION

This paper seeks to give a sense of the biggest and most influential media outlets in Vietnam, who owns and controls them, and what sorts of tools, methods and policies are employed to ensure the regime’s control over the information ecosystem. It addresses these questions: What are the vested interests behind private conglomerates that run newly emerging news outlets? Do these media entities exhibit a particular editorial slant that challenges the party line? How have the authorities sought to keep exerting control and influence on the press in this new media landscape at a time when they are struggling to rein in online discourse?

The vast majority of the most popular news sites in Vietnam are currently run by three private tech conglomerates, namely FPT Corporation, Zalo/VNG and VCCorp. On the face of it, this situation poses a potential challenge for the Vietnamese party-state, which does not allow private media ownership and has always sought to control public discourse. This paper argues that, in fact, there are no signs that these tech companies have exhibited any editorial independence; rather, they seem to be adopting a pragmatic stance and consulting closely with the government.

THE NEXUS BETWEEN TECH FIRMS AND THE PARTY-STATE

Internet growth in Vietnam got off to a rather low start. The Internet arrived in Vietnam only in 1997 and three years later, a mere 203,000 Vietnamese (or 0.25 per cent of the then total population) were online.[1] But due to growing demands from the business community and consumers for cheaper, faster and better Internet access[2], as well as the need to boost e-commerce as Vietnam opened up to the global economy[3], the authorities allowed for more competition from the private sector and the development of online media. As of January 2022, around 72 million Vietnamese, or 70 per cent of the population, were online.[4] In the early 2000s, established newspapers, including the mouthpiece of the Communist party, started to launch their online versions. Major tech companies entered the fray in the mid-2000s, accelerating the development of Vietnam’s online media space with prominent entrants that remain the most popular and most read today.[5] Since Vietnam ushered in economic liberalisation policies known as “Doi Moi” (renovation) in 1986, the party-state has “actively outsourced the burden of funding media to the market.”[6] All this attests to a rat race for readers’ attention and advertising dollars in an increasingly commercialised and growing media industry.

Just like everywhere else, Vietnam’s print newspapers have been haemorrhaging readers to online news sites. Of the top ten most-read online news sites in Vietnam, VnExpress has been the most popular. Among state-run sites that cracked the list, Tuoi Tre (Youth) and Thanh Nien (Young People), which also launched their online versions in the early 2000s, have remained the most influential established print newspapers in the country. Tuoi Tre operates under the remit of the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union and Thanh Nien under the Vietnam Youth Federation. Considered the most progressive newspapers in Vietnam in the 2000s, both were at the forefront of pushing the envelope in their coverage of endemic corruption, government malfeasance and social injustice. The other two state-run news outlets that are on the list are VietNamNet, owned by the Ministry of Information and Communications, and Dan Tri (Public Intellectual), which is under the Central Association for Education Promoting.

FIGURE 1. THE TOP 10 MOST-READ ONLINE NEWS SITES IN VIETNAM

(Sources: SimilarWeb and Semrush, February 2022[7])

The other news sites on the list centre on three tech conglomerates: FPT Corporation (the Corporation for Financing and Promoting Technology), Zalo Group, and VCCorp (Vietnam Communication Corporation). FPT Corporation owns VnExpress. Zalo Group, owned by VNG, runs Zing News and baomoi.com. VCCorp owns Kenh14.vn and Soha.vn. Closer scrutiny of the profiles of those corporations, how they are beholden to the authorities and what shapes the editorial line of their news outlets offer a glimpse of the nexus between tech conglomerates and the Vietnamese party-state.

What are their profiles?

FPT: Starting out as a food processing technology company in 1988, FPT Corporation is currently the largest IT group in Vietnam.[8] Its core business revolves around three sectors: information technology, telecommunications and education.

Zalo/VNG: VNG, the parent company of Zalo, has been billed as Vietnam’s first ever unicorn startup specialising in online gaming, e-commerce, music streaming and messaging application.[9] Zalo owns the eponymous premier chatting app in Vietnam, boasting more than 70 million users.[10]

VCCorp: The conglomerate brands itself as a leading technology and Internet player in Vietnam.[11] Its core business models focus on e-commerce, online content, online advertising and mobile content.

How beholden are these tech conglomerates to the Vietnamese government?

Of note, the interests of the Vietnamese party-state and those of such tech conglomerates have become increasingly aligned and intertwined.

FPT: According to Nikkei Asia, the government holds a 5.9 per cent stake in FPT Corporation while foreign investors own 48.75 per cent.[12] The conglomerate has been a major Internet Service Provider (ISP) that has been a part of the country’s Internet filtering regime, blocking sites at the behest of Vietnamese censors.[13]

Zalo/VNG: A major communication channel between the Vietnamese government and its citizens, Zalo has also been utilised as part of the e-government infrastructure across the country.[14] Vietnamese authorities have tapped into patriotic nationalism to talk the public into using the app.[15] Since 2018, Zalo/VNG, along with VCCorp and another Vietnamese tech firm, has been at the vanguard of what amounts to a national mission. The government has tasked those tech firms with jacking up the number of social media customers that use domestic platforms, a move designed to rival Meta’s Facebook and Google’s YouTube.[16]

VCCorp: VCCorp bankrolled and developed Lotus, a Vietnamese social network that was launched in 2019 to much fanfare and with wholehearted support from the government.[17]

What dictates their editorial line?

News outlets run by the private tech companies tailor their content to a young, Internet-savvy audience, a growing middle class, and the business community. Their topics of coverage are diverse, ranging from politics to society, world affairs to education, business to urban life, technology to youth, and entertainment to sports. But when it comes to politics, their editorial line has revolved chiefly around amplifying official sources and state-sanctioned narratives under the banner of innovative online journalism that embraces long form, visual and interactive storytelling. The treatment of any contentious issues is well within the boundaries of the permissible, serving mostly as a useful local-level overview. Coverage of governance malfeasance and corruption at the central level has been dictated by the political consensus and elite framing of the Vietnamese party-state. In sum, news outlets run by private tech conglomerates have never seemed intent on adopting any editorial slant that challenges the party line. As Nguyen-Thu (2018) observes, the growing clout of businesspeople in the media industry only means that they are likely to be inclined to shun “sensitive” topics and to focus instead on “commercially rewarding but politically benign content.”[18] The nexus between tech conglomerates and the Vietnamese party-state has augmented, not curtailed, new constraints on the media, with the former being subject to market pressures while remaining answerable to and at the mercy of propaganda officials. As Nguyen-Thu (2018) encapsulates, “the defining characteristics of the contemporary Vietnamese media is thus not just political censorship, but the raw combination of political surveillance and commercializing pressure.”[19]

“UNPREDICTABLE AND ARBITRARY” CENSORSHIP

Under the Press Law 2016, all press agencies in Vietnam, including those run by private tech companies, must be placed under the remit of the party, the government or various political, social, professional or religious associations and organizations.[20] Private participation in news organizations and television is allowed, but their editorial content must not be related to political and current news events.[21] In practice, private production of content has taken place for years. Many outlets have produced TV shows, hosted online news portals and published local versions of foreign magazines and publications. The same dynamic can also be observed in the television industry, where state-run stations are allowed to privatise their shows, apart from those on news and current affairs.[22]

Still, the bottom line is that in order to operate in Vietnam, private companies are required to partner with a state entity. FPT’s VnExpress is concurrently under the ownership of the Ministry of Science and Technology and Zalo’s Zing News under the remit of the Vietnam Publishing Association. The case of VCCorp is a bit trickier, however. All news sites run by the conglomerate, including the two on the most-read list, are technically licensed as “aggregated information websites”, not online newspapers. This means that these sites are obliged to operate effectively as news aggregators[23]; they are allowed to only republish news information from a state-approved whitelist. But in practice, many such aggregated information websites have had their own staff produce original content. Their technical workaround has been to publish such information in the name of citing from certain state-affiliated online newspapers, with the latter’s consent.[24] In that spirit, the VCCorp-run aggregated information websites are affiliated with news outlets that are owned by the Young Intellectuals and Scientists Association, and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

The Central Commission of Propaganda and Education and the Ministry of Information and Communications have been at the helm in controlling the press, dictating over all state-run print, broadcast, online, and electronic media.[25] The Central Commission of Propaganda and Education acts as an ideological gatekeeper, advising the Communist party of Vietnam on how to keep tabs on the press. The Ministry of Information and Communications is mainly charged with regulating Vietnamese media through the licensing system and overseeing other legal, technical and economic aspects of the industry.[26] All editors-in-chief of those press agencies are Communist party members; this requirement has extended to those who hold senior editorial positions at established newspapers. Senior editors, including those of private-run ones, are summoned to weekly meetings with propaganda officials either every Tuesday in Hanoi, the capital, or every Wednesday in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s economic hub. In those meetings, published articles are reviewed and news outlets are subject to dressing-down or even fines if they are deemed not subservient enough to the party line. Propaganda officials also set the boundaries of what is publishable for upcoming topics of importance and public interests.

But such out-of-bounds markers have never been straightforward and have in fact become increasingly fuzzy. As Cain (2013, 3) observes, Vietnam’s media controls are “purposefully unpredictable and arbitrary”[27] in a bid to induce and perpetuate self-censorship among journalists and their editors in particular. Indeed, it is the Vietnamese party-state’s deployment of vagueness and uncertainty that plays a crucial role in enabling the authorities to keep the media on their toes. Thanks to a conflicting array of laws, decrees, and even the Constitution as far as it provides for press freedom, Vietnamese authorities on the one hand allow for criticism of the party-state but on the other can make such practices an offense.[28] All this puts the media in an ironic position: It is tasked with serving as a “forum for the people” while at the same time serving as a “mouthpiece of the Party.”

KILL THE CHICKEN TO SCARE THE MONKEY

The heyday of Vietnam’s critical journalism in the 2000s was short-lived. In mid-2008, after forcing a minister of transport to step down and exposing graft that sent scores of high-ranking officials to jail, two prominent Vietnamese journalists from the two most influential established newspapers, Tuoi Tre and Thanh Nien, were arrested.[29] Later that year, the editors-in-chief of the same newspapers were also fired. The authorities never clearly articulated their rationale for their dismissal, but it was not difficult to fathom: Their corruption coverage crossed the line. The concurrent dismissal of the top editors of Vietnam’s legacy news organisations was an unprecedented move in the history of the country’s journalism. This crackdown has since upended the country’s media landscape, perpetuating a climate of fear and self-censorship that only appears to exacerbate day by day.

A decade later, Tuoi Tre became the casualty to another unprecedented move. In 2018, its online version was suspended for three months after being accused of misquoting the then-Vietnamese president and publishing readers’ comments deemed by the authorities as undermining “national unity”.[30] The incident was likely to bring about a sense of déjà vu for VnExpress. The site was also on the brink of shutdown in 2004, three years into its operation, due to readers’ comments that were critical of the government policy on car imports.[31] VnExpress narrowly escaped the closure but since then, critical and investigative journalism has effectively been off its editorial agenda. Those cases are likely to have served as cautionary tales for the rest of the media landscape: Any editorial slant that crosses the party line risks imperilling the very survival of any news organisation, let alone private-run ones. Such tactics are in line with how the Vietnamese party-state controls the media. As Cain (2013) observes, because the authorities lack the wherewithal to punish every single transgressor, their strategy of choice is to kill the chicken to scare the monkey, or to go after “a handful of exemplars to keep the rest in line.”[32]

The 2018 punishment against Tuoi Tre has also appeared to further embolden Vietnamese authorities to dangle the no-holds-barred threat of withdrawing the license of any news outlet they consider straying from the party line. Nowhere is this strategy of choice more manifest than in what has been referred to as the Press Shakeup Blueprint 2025.[33] The blueprint, which was announced in 2015, seeks, among other things, to increase and centralise state control over the media by axing or merging hundreds of press organisations. The authorities have justified this move as being essential to the revamping of the bloated bureaucracy and overlapping ownership that have plagued the news industry.[34] While this justification is legitimate to some extent, critics of the blueprint point out that one of its key aims is to rein in media organisations deemed decamping from ideology. Most notably, the authorities seem intent on explicitly prohibiting news outlets from covering topics that are not aligned with the raison d’être of the agencies or associations they belong to.[35] For instance, judging by the tenor of the plan, Zing News would be allowed to run articles mostly on publishing activities since it falls under the remit of the Vietnam Publishing Association. If the outlet ventures into coverage of other topics deemed editorially sensitive or slanted by the censors, that could be considered in contravention of the stated aims of the license, which could lead to its withdrawal. This scenario is poised to affect almost half of all press organisations in Vietnam, which technically belong to various socio-political-professional associations (See Figure 2). The press overhaul has been enforced unevenly since 2019 and it remains to be seen what will become of Vietnam’s media landscape by 2025. But for now, the prospect of the blueprint appears to add another layer of uncertainty and suspense for a press that has already been cowed into submission. It is alsoa testament to how Vietnamese authorities have constantly looked to weaponise regulations to induce news uniformity and instill self-censorship across the board.

FIGURE 2. OWNERSHIP STRUCTURE OF PRESS ORGANISATIONS

(Source: Ministry of Information and Communications)

APPETITE FOR ALTERNATIVE NEWS SOURCES REMAINS HIGH

Vietnamese authorities have repeatedly urged the mainstream media to get out of the rut to enhance professional practices and embrace digital technology at what they call a make-or-break juncture for Vietnamese journalism. But as we have seen, the façade of innovation in Vietnam’s media landscape should not be understood as a harbinger of a more independent press.[36] In fact, its continued strong controls over mainstream media is emblematic of how the Vietnamese party-state has sought to engineer a superficial openness to camouflage a tighter grip on public discourse.

The era of swelling social media activism seems to have elicited a policy response aimed at further constraining traditional media in their coverage of contentious issues that cast the regime in an unflattering light. The fact that the privately-owned media outlets have also toed the Party’s line suggests that the appetite for alternative news sources will remain high.

ENDNOTES


[1] “The Internet Turns 20 in Vietnam: P6—Wi-Fi and Household Internet”, Tuoi Tre News, 12 November 2017, https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/features/20171112/ the-internet-turns-20-in-vietnam-p6-wifi-and-household-internet/42600.html

[2] Bjorn Surborg, “On-line with the People in Line: Internet Development and Flexible Control of the Net in Vietnam”, Geoforum 39, no.1 (2008): 344–57, http://citeseerx. ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.458.505&rep=rep1&type=pdf

[3] Tim Kelly and Michael Minges, Vietnam Internet Case Study (Switzerland: International Telecommunication Union, 2002), p. 29, https://www.itu.int/ ITU-D/ict/cs/vietnam/material/VNM%20CS.pdf

[4] “Digital 2022: Vietnam”. DataReportal, 15 February 2022. https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2022-vietnam

[5] Zachary Abuza, Stifling the Public Sphere: Media and Civil Society in Vietnam, (Washington DC: National Endownment for Democracy 2015), p .9, https://www.ned.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Stifling-the-Public-Sphere-Media-Civil-Society-Vietnam-Forum-NED.pdf

[6] Giang Nguyen-Thu. 2018. “Vietnamese Media Going Social: Connectivism, Collectivism, and Conservatism”. The Journal of Asian Studies 77, no. 4: 895–908

[7] “Digital 2022 Vietnam: The Essential Guide to the Latest Connected Behaviours”. We Are Social and Kepios, 15 February 2022.

[8] “FPT Corp.” Nikkei Asia, https://asia.nikkei.com/Companies/FPT-Corp

[9] Lien Hoang, “Vietnam’s first unicorn bets on AI and overseas growth”. Nikkei Asia, 30 April 2021. https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Business-Spotlight/Vietnam-s-first-unicorn-bets-on-AI-and-overseas-growth

[10] “Zalo was honored as the leading messaging app in Vietnam”. Vietnam Insider, 29 March 2022. https://vietnaminsider.vn/zalo-was-honored-as-the-leading-messaging-app-in-vietnam/

[11] VC Corp. https://www.linkedin.com/company/vccorpvietnam/about/

[12] “FPT Corp.” Nikkei Asia, https://asia.nikkei.com/Companies/FPT-Corp

[13] Dien Nguyen An Luong, A Study of Vietnam’s Control over Online Anti-state Content, no. 05/2022 (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2017), p. 8

[14] Uyen Diep with Ha Dang, “COVID-19: For Vietnam, Information Is A Public-Health Weapon”. Reporting Asean, 18 June 2021. https://www.reportingasean.net/covid-19-vietnam-iinformation-public-health-weapon/

[15] Phuong Loan, “‘Ở đâu có người Việt, ở đó có Zalo’” (Zalo will follow Vietnamese wherever they may go). Zing.vn, 15 January 2019. https://

news.vn/o-dau-co-nguoi-viet-o-do-co-zalo-post889846.html

[16] “Vietnam wants 50 percent of social media users on domestic platforms by 2020”. Reuters, 8 November 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam-socialmedia/vietnam-wants-50-percent-of-social-media-users-on-domestic-platforms-by-2020-idUSKCN1ND1FM

[17] “Vietnam’s social media crowd swells with new entrant to take on Facebook, Google”. Reuters, 17 September 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam-cybersecurity/vietnams-social-media-crowd-swells-with-new-entrant-to-take-on-facebook-google-idUSKBN1W20NH

[18] Giang Nguyen-Thu. 2018. “Vietnamese Media Going Social: Connectivism, Collectivism, and Conservatism”. The Journal of Asian Studies 77, no. 4: 895–908

[19] Ibid., p.898

[20] Vietnam Press Law 2016. https://wipolex-res.wipo.int/edocs/lexdocs/laws/en/vn/vn111en.html

[21] Nguyen T.N., Bui C.T. 2019. “The state management of media activities in Vietnam “. The Russian Journal of Vietnamese Studies.  Vol. 3. – N. 3. – P. 18-27. 10.24411/2618-9453-2019-10024

[22] Nguyen-Thu. “Vietnamese Media Going Social, p. 898

[23] Thi Thanh Phuong Nguyen-Pochan. “State management of social media in Vietnam.” The Russian Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Institute of the Far Eastern studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 2021, 5 (1S), pp.23 – 33.

[24] Hien Minh, “Zing.vn và 18 tờ báo khác sẽ không còn được là “báo” nữa” (Zing.vn and other 18 newspapers will no longer be allowed to function as “newspaper”). Luat Khoa Magazine, 3 March 2020. https://www.luatkhoa.org/2020/03/zing-vn-va-18-to-bao-khac-se-khong-con-duoc-la-bao-nua/

[25] Zachary Abuza, Stifling the Public Sphere: Media and Civil Society in Vietnam, (Washington DC: National Endownment for Democracy 2015), p .10, https:/
/www.ned.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Stifling-the-Public-Sphere-Media-Civil-Society-Vietnam-Forum-NED.pdf

[26] Giang Nguyen-Thu. 2018. “Vietnamese Media Going Social: Connectivism, Collectivism, and Conservatism”. The Journal of Asian Studies 77, no. 4: 895–908

[27] “Kill One to Warn One Hundred: The Politics of Press Censorship in Vietnam”, Cain, Geoffrey. ISSN: 1940-1612 , 1940-1620. The international journal of press/politics, Vol.19(1), p.85-107

[28] Ibid., p. 94

[29] Martha Ann Overland, “Top Vietnamese Journalists Arrested”. TIME, 16 May 2008. http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1807113,00.html

[30] Vietnam withdraws licence of news site, issues fine. Bangkok Post, 17 July 2018. https://www.bangkokpost.com/world/1505098/vietnam-withdraws-licence-of-news-site-issuesfine

[31] “VnExpress mất Tổng biên tập” (VnExress’ Editor-in-chief gets the ax). BBC Vietnamese, 10 November 2004. https://web.archive.org/web/20211208004318/https://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/forum/story/2004/11/printable/041110_vnexpress_mercedes

[32] “Kill One to Warn One Hundred”, Cain, p. 92

[33] “Vietnam introduces draft planning for national press management”. Tuoi Tre News, 26 September 2015. https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/society/20150926/vietnam-introduces-draft-planning-for-national-press-management/38123.html

[34] Nguyen T.N., Bui C.T. 2019. “The state management of media activities in Vietnam “. The Russian Journal of Vietnamese Studies.  Vol. 3. – N. 3. – P. 18-27. 10.24411/2618-9453-2019-10024

[35] “Quyết liệt triển khai Quy hoạch phát triển và quản lý báo chí toàn quốc đến năm 2025” (Drastically implementing the Press Plan 2025). The Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information, 25 December 2020. https://abei.gov.vn/phat-thanh-truyen-hinh/quyet-liet-trien-khai-quy-hoach-phat-trien-va-quan-ly-bao-chi-toan-quoc-den-nam-2025/107464

[36] “2021 World Press Freedom Index”. Reporters Without Borders. https://rsf.org/en/ranking/2021

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2022/61 “Weaponizing Ho Chi Minh in Vietnamese Discourse on the War in Ukraine” by Olga Dror

 

Mắt Thần (Divine Eye), a state-linked Facebook page, has been attempting to mobilize pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian sentiments through the use of two old videos about Ho Chi Minh from Ukrainian sources that it considers offensive. Picture: Banner of Facebook Page of Mắt Thần (Divine Eye) at https://www.facebook.com/MatThan.Official

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  • Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the Vietnamese government has appeared sympathetic to Moscow, unwilling to denounce its aggression. Facing criticism from some quarters of the public, Vietnam’s propaganda machine has used social media channels to justify the government’s position.
  • Mắt Thần (Divine Eye), a state-linked Facebook page, has mobilized pro-Russia and anti-Ukraine sentiments by publishing videos on two old Ukrainian media items about Ho Chi Minh that it considers offensive.
  • The controversial episode has led to conflicting reactions from Ukrainian and Russian authorities, as well as Vietnamese netizens, who are themselves divided over the war.
  • Divine Eye’s attempt to “weaponize” Ho Chi Minh to mobilize public support for Vietnam’s stance on the Ukrainian conflict is another example showing that, more than 50 years after his passing, Ho Chi Minh’s emotional appeal remains a useful tool for Vietnam’s propagandists.
  • However, the reach of Divine Eye’s videos is rather limited, and the effectiveness of this propaganda remains unclear.

* Olga Dror is Professor of History in the Department of History, Texas A&M University, USA. She has written extensively on Vietnamese religions, intellectual history, and various aspects of the Vietnam War. Her current research focuses on the personality cult around Ho Chi Minh.

ISEAS Perspective 2022/61, 13 June 2022

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INTRODUCTION

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Vietnamese official press has presented itself as non-partisan. However, given Vietnam’s historical ties with Russia, and Moscow’s present role as Hanoi’s main arms supplier, the Vietnamese government has appeared sympathetic to Moscow, and has been unwilling to denounce its aggression.[1] Vietnam abstained on two United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolutions that condemned the invasion and voted against the suspension of Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council. On 19 April 2022, the Russian News Agency also announced that Vietnam and Russia are planning to hold a joint military exercise in 2022.[2] Yet, many Vietnamese intellectuals and members of the public have held a contrary view, condemning Russia’s invasion and showing support for Ukraine.

Against this backdrop, there have been indications that Vietnam’s propaganda machine has used different tools and narratives to justify its initial position on the conflict, often on social media. This article looks at how Mắt Thần (Divine Eye), a state-linked Facebook page, has mobilized pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian sentiments by digging up two old media items about Ho Chi Minh from Ukrainian sources that the page considers offensive. The episode shows that more than 50 years after his passing, Ho Chi Minh remains not only an important source of legitimacy for the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) but also an effective mobilizing symbol for its propaganda machine.

According to Divine Eye’s self-description,[3] it is a media critic and a “multidimensional” information sharing channel. The page was created on 29 March 2021. As of 22 May 2022, it had 606,000 followers and followed no one. Divine Eye’s first video was uploaded on 27 April 2021. Since then, the page has posted between five and seven political videos per day, each 12-13 minutes long. Since 21 November 2021, Divine Eye has also posted the same materials on other channels, such as activepress24.com and canhco.net, suggesting that it is a propaganda platform that seeks to maximize its reach to the Vietnamese public. The page’s pro-state tone and the significant volume of materials it produces every day also suggests that it is well-resourced and backed by Vietnam’s official propaganda machine. It has also been identified by some researchers to be among the largest pro-Russia Facebook pages/groups in Vietnam.[4]

Divine Eye’s logo is similar to the Divine Eye symbol in Caodaism, a syncretic religion in southern Vietnam, which reminds followers that God sees everything. However, the logo seems to have been copied from an image of the esoteric evil eye, the glance of which is believed to destroy or harm anyone on whom it falls. Ironically, the original logo was first posted online by a Ukrainian-Israeli artist who strongly denounced the Russian war in Ukraine.[5]

Initially focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic and the South China Sea dispute, Divine Eye has since February 2022 switched its attention to Russia’s war in Ukraine and adopted a markedly pro-Russia and anti-Ukraine tone. Towards this end, it posted on 19 March 2022 a video in which it appealed to the Vietnamese public to be irate over the fact that “Ukrainian Media Made a Film Insulting President Ho Chi Minh – Calling Him a Dictator of History”.[6] The video, which is 12 minutes and 42 seconds long, refutes two media items produced in Ukraine: a 2013 article and a 2017 documentary. Divine Eye accused these media items of slandering Ho Chi Minh by calling him a dictator. By 22 May 2022, the video had been viewed 1.5 million times and shared 3,500 times, gathering 43,000 reactions and 12,000 comments.

Figure 1 – Screenshot of Divine Eye’s Video (21 May 2022)

One day after publishing the post, Divine Eye reinforced its argument with another video, asserting that “Ukrainians Must Feel Ashamed When They Learn That Not Only Russia But the Whole World Respects Uncle Ho”.[7] The video opens with an image of a monument of Ho Chi Minh erected in Moscow in 1990 with a superscription across the screen: “Uncle Ho – An Icon Revered by the Entire World, But Ukrainians Still Fall into an Unforgivable Mistake.” This is followed by an image of Lenin’s monument being destroyed and then images of numerous monuments honouring Ho Chi Minh in countries around the world. By 22 May, this video had garnered 45,000 likes, 2,800 shares, 3,100 comments, and 965,000 views. Both posts are among the most visible and discussed videos that Divine Eye has ever produced.

It is notable that the two Ukrainian media items that Divine Eye refers to in its videos were published long ago and gained little attention until the page dug them up. The first video referred to an article published in April 2013 by Oleg Bagan, the current Director of the Dimitry Dontsov Scientific and Ideological Center in Drohobych in western Ukraine, in the online newspaper Українська Правда (Ukrainian Truth). Written after the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the article evaluated his “left-populist” policies and connected them to Lenin’s policies and how these resulted in great suffering and loss of life. The author then claimed that Lenin’s policies were repeated by various charismatic leaders of dictatorial regimes such as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, Fidel Castro, Josip Broz Tito, Muammar Gaddafi, and Saddam Hussein.[8] This was the only mention of Ho Chi Minh in Bagan’s article. As of 21 May 2022, more than nine years after its publication, the article had been read only 280 times.

The second Ukrainian media item mentioned by Divine Eye was produced over four years ago. On 7 November 2017, the centenary of the October Revolution, the Ukrainian 24TV channel published a 12-minute documentary titled “Ho Chi Minh – a God-like Elder-Dictator with a Bolshevist Heart.” The documentary was made by Andriy Konkov, a Ukrainian journalist and news editor of the channel, as part of his “Dictators” series.[9] Konkov described Ho Chi Minh’s childhood and his trips to France, the Soviet Union, China, and other places. He also discussed Ho Chi Minh’s role in the liberation of Vietnam from the French. However, Konkov also called Ho Chi Minh an agent of the Kremlin and raised topics considered politically sensitive in Vietnam, such as Ho Chi Minh’s relationships with women; the 1953-56 Land Reform, which he said took 100,000 lives; and the repression of intellectuals. He concluded that Ho Chi Minh was a dictator of an authoritarian state. It is important to note that 24TV channel has a very limited daily viewership of 1.1% in Ukraine.[10] By 22 May 2022, the video had only registered 4,826 views, nowhere close to the viewership of some of Konkov’s other works that on average garnered around 50,000 views each.

UKRAINIAN AND RUSSIAN OFFICIAL REACTIONS

In March 2018, several months after the release of Konkov’s video, Oksana Yurinets, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament and head of a parliamentary group for inter-parliamentary relations with Vietnam, wrote a letter to the director of 24TV channel at the request of then-Vietnamese Ambassador to Ukraine Nguyen Anh Tuan. In the letter, Yurinets demanded that the channel “refute unreliable information” in the video as it “undermines Ho Chi Minh’s prestige” and “misleads local people, especially those who are sympathetic with Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam.” However, she did not specify what information she wanted removed, and nothing was done about the video.[11] Whatever the case, Vietnamese propagandists ignored it for five years as they did Bagan’s article for nine years. The fact that Divine Eye dug up these old media items to mobilize anti-Ukraine sentiments following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could hardly have been a coincidence.

On 21 March, two days after the release of Divine Eye’s first video, VOA Vietnamese published a report in which Nataliya Zhynkina, Ukraine’s Chargé d’Affaires in Vietnam, claimed that digging up and using these two old media items was “part of an information war, with the aim of causing enmity between the people of Ukraine and Vietnam.” Zhynkina stressed that the pieces got almost no attention in Ukraine and noted that Ukrainian delegations to Vietnam always respectfully visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. She also added that there was a high school named after Ho Chi Minh in Kyiv, and in 2015, the Ukrainian Library of Parliament held an exhibition on “Ho Chi Minh and Ukraine” to mark the 125th anniversary of his birth. Zhynkina alleged that “the origin of this attack is an information source on Facebook, which broadcasts false content and propaganda from Russia”.[12] On 23 March, Divine Eye struck back by accusing Zhynkina of causing a controversy “to force Vietnam to act to protect Ukraine” and condemning her for meeting with “the opposition” in Vietnam.[13]

The episode also garnered attention from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On 6 April 2022, at her weekly briefing, Maria Zakharova, the Ministry’s spokeswoman, was asked by a representative of the Ministry’s journal, Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’ [International Life], about the reactions in Vietnam to the Ukrainian media items “insulting” Ho Chi Minh. Zakharova commented that: “[T]his is a highly unsavoury story. At the same time, it is the norm for the Kiev regime and those who follow its mainstream of twisting history.”[14] The response suggests that Zaharova was unaware of the nature of the two Ukrainian media items, or that she intentionally associated the dated productions of two individuals with the official view of the current Ukrainian government. On 15 April, the excerpts related to Vietnam from Zakharova’s briefing were posted on the website of the Russian Embassy in Vietnam in both Russian and Vietnamese.[15] On 17 April, Divine Eye posted a video praising the response of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. By 22 May, the video had garnered 290,000 views, 1,200 comments, 12,000 reactions, and almost 1,000 shares.[16] The whole episode suggests that Divine Eye is closely connected to pro-Russian interests.

VIETNAM IN-BETWEEN RUSSIA AND UKRAINE

There are some fallacies in Divine Eye’s videos. The creators of the videos conveniently chose to focus on Konkov’s claim that Ho Chi Minh was a dictator and ignore all other facts mentioned by him, such as Ho Chi Minh’s role in liberating Vietnam from French colonialism. Moreover, the videos also assign collective guilt to the Ukrainians, extending the blame for the old media items created by two individuals on the current Ukrainian government and President Zelensky, who only assumed office in 2019. However illogical this approach is, some comments on the videos show that it seems to work. One Facebook user claimed that the defeat of Ukraine, which according to him is ruled by a clown (a reference to Zelensky’s previous career as a comedian), is the joy and happiness of the Russian people, whom the author conflates with the Soviet Union, and is also the joy of Vietnamese citizens since “the clown dared to speak ill of the leader of our country Vietnam.” This disregard for logic impedes balanced, well-informed discussions, by appealing to emotions instead.

Most Divine Eye followers respond to these emotional cords by asserting their love, respect, and veneration for Ho Chi Minh. They found Divine Eye videos skilfully produced and convincing. One follower called Konkov (or TV24 channel, or Ukrainians in general—it is unclear from the sentence), “idiots and a bunch of stupid reactionaries, who do not know anything about the great and respected leader, Ho Chi Minh.” Another one claimed that “[t]hose who dare to offend the beloved leader of the Vietnamese people, Uncle Ho Chi Minh, will be cursed by the whole world and their country will be ravaged by war!” Another credited Divine Eye’s video for changing his opinion on the war—while he had initially supported the Ukrainians, his sympathies had now switched to the Russians as he felt that the Ukrainians had abused the Vietnamese people.

Obviously, Divine Eye caters to an “echo chamber”—a very specific self-selected audience that supports its views.[17] However, among them, there was a small number of reactions that were critical of Putin and Russia. One comment noted that both Vietnam and Ukraine are independent countries, and no country has the right to impose what path another must take. Another comment asked: “Why force them to follow dictatorial socialism, while they want to follow the capitalist way, the way of independence, and freedom? Forcing Ukraine to follow the way it does not want shows that Putin belongs in the jungles, not in the domain of international law.”

Divine Eye’s anti-Ukrainian position does not seem to align with the view of the broader Vietnamese public. For example, Dien Nguyen An Luong and Amirul Adli Bin Rosli find that Vietnamese internet users are often critical of the government’s stance vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine.[18] There have even been some demonstrations and projects in Vietnam where people collect money, clothes, medicine, and other goods to send to Ukraine as many Vietnamese feel affinity with Ukraine or are appalled by Russian aggression.[19] Divine Eye is trying to persuade opponents of the Vietnamese government’s approach and those on the fence to fall in line, behind Uncle Ho.

CONCLUSION

Ho Chi Minh, both during his life and after, has played an important role in the mobilization of Vietnamese citizens to support the CPV and its policies. His personality cult has been indispensable in this process.[20] Generations of Vietnamese have been raised with the avuncular image of Ho Chi Minh, and been taught to love and be devoted to Uncle Ho. Although the grip of the Ho Chi Minh cult on Vietnamese minds has been weakening in recent years, the CPV still uses it to keep the Vietnamese in line.[21] Divine Eye’s attempt to “weaponize” Ho Chi Minh in mobilizing pro-Russia and anti-Ukraine sentiments, and by extension public support for Vietnam’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is yet another example of Ho Chi Minh’s emotional appeal remaining a useful tool for Vietnam’s propagandists, more than 50 years after his passing.

The effectiveness of this propaganda remains unclear, especially since the reach of Divine Eye’s videos is rather limited. Where Vietnam’s official position is concerned, Hanoi has announced that it will provide Ukraine with US$500,000 in humanitarian aid. During a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. on 11 May, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh also reaffirmed Vietnam’s position of respecting the UN Charter, principles of international law, states’ independent sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as addressing all disputes through peaceful means without use or threat of force.[22]

While short of calling out Russia, the statement’s neutral undertone suggests that despite its voting on the UN’s resolutions to preserve ties with Russia, Vietnam also wishes to moderate its stance on the Ukrainian conflict to avoid hurting its relationship with Ukraine and with the West.

ENDNOTES


[1] For an analysis on the pro-Russian online sentiments in Vietnam, see Hoang Thi Ha and Dien Nguyen An Luong, “The Russia-Ukraine War: Unpacking Online Pro-Russia Narratives in Vietnam” ISEAS Perspective 2022/44, 27 April 2022. /articles-commentaries/iseas-perspective/2022-44-the-russia-ukraine-war-unpacking-online-pro-russia-narratives-in-vietnam-by-hoang-thi-ha-and-dien-nguyen-an-luong/.

[2] “Rossia I Vietnam Provedut Novye Mezhdunarodnye Uchenia” [Russia and Vietnam to Hold New International Military Exercises], TASS, 19 April 2022, https://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/14407641.

[3] https://www.facebook.com/MatThan.Official. At the end of May, the page was inaccessible for several days.

[4] See, for example, Hoang Thi Ha and Dien Nguyen An Luong, “The Russia-Ukraine War.”

[5] The two images are carbon copies. The artist has many other similar images. See: https://www.etsy.com/il-en/listing/944657825/esoteric-evil-eye-svg-2-turkish-eye-svg

[6] I am indebted to Nina Grigoreva, my former classmate in Russia, for drawing my attention to this video that served as a starting point for this article. See, Mắt Thần, “Phẫn Nộ! Truyền Thông Ukraina Làm Phim Xúc Phạm Chủ Tịch HCM, Đổ Lỗi Cho Việt Nam” [Get Indignant! Ukrainian Media Made Films Insulting President Ho Chi Minh, Blaming Vietnam], 19 March 2022, https://www.facebook.com/MatThan.Official/videos/3131807903757662/.  While the official page of Divine Eye has been restored, the video remained inaccessible as of 7 June. However, it can be found at https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1114053539171034 and on some Youtube channels.

[7] Mắt Thần, “Người Ukraina Sẽ Phải Xấu Hổ Khi Biết Rằng Không Chỉ Nga Mà Cả Thế Giới Kính Nể Bác Hồ” [Ukrainians Must Be Ashamed To Learn That Not Only Russia But The Whole World Respects Uncle Ho], 21 March 2022, https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=329331582501785 Like the previous clip, this one is inaccessible on Divine Eye’s page as of 7 June, but can be found at https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=3196205573951482.

[8] Oleg Bagan, “’Чавес – вічно живий!’. Кілька тез про типологію одного явища” [‘Chavez is alive forever!’ Several Theses on the Typology of One Phenomenon], Українська Правда, 18 April 2013, https://www.pravda.com.ua/rus/columns/2013/04/18/6988429/

[9] Андрій Конько,“Хо Ши Мін – “богоподібний старець-диктатор” з більшовицьким серцем” [Ho Chi Minh is a ‘God-like Elder-Dictator’ with a Bolshevik’s Heart], 7 November 2017, https://24tv.ua/ho_shi_min__bogopodibniy_starets_diktator_z_bilshovitskim_sertsem_n886343

[10] “Channel 24,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Channel_24_(Ukraine)

[11] “Нардеп від БПП заступилася за комуністичного лідера” [The People’s Deputy from the BPP Stood Up for the Communist Leader ], 24TV, 21 March 2018, https://24tv.ua/ru/nardep_ot_bpp_vstupilas_za_kommunisticheskogo_lidera_n941296.

[12] VOA Vietnamese, “Đại biện Ukraine ở VN: Xới lên bài viết về Hồ Chí Minh là ‘tấn công thông tin’, gây thù hằn,” [Ukrainian Chargé d’Affaires in Vietnam: Digging Up Articles About Ho Chi Minh is an ‘Information Attack’, Inciting Hatred], 21 March 2022, https://www.voatiengviet.com/a/dai-bien-ukraine-o-vn-xoi-len-bai-viet-ve-ho-chi-minh-la-tan-cong-thong-tin-gay-thu-han/6494295.html

[13] It is published on the Divine Eye’s alternative websites on 23 March 2022: Nam Anh, “Đại Diện Ukraine Tại Việt Nam Lên Tiếng Về 2 Ấn Phẩm ‘Tấn Công Thông Tin’ Gây Thù Hằn” [Ukrainian Representative in Vietnam Speaks Out About 2 Publications – ‘Propaganda Attacks’ Inciting Hatred],  https://canhco.net/dai-dien-ukraine-tai-viet-nam-len-tieng-ve-2-an-pham-tan-cong-thong-tin-gay-thu-han-p597427.html and https://activepress24.com/dai-dien-ukraine-tai-viet-nam-len-tieng-ve-2-an-pham-tan-cong-thong-tin-gay-thu-han.

[14] Брифинг официального представителя МИД России М.В.Захаровой, Москва, 6 апреля 2022 года [Briefing of the Official Representative of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs M. V. Zakharova, Moscow, 6 April, 2022]. https://www.mid.ru/ru/press_service/video/brifingi/1808254/#19, transcript in English “Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova,” Moscow, 6 April 2022, https://mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/1808254/.

[15] The post in Russian: https://vietnam.mid.ru/ru/press-centre/news/iz_brifinga_m_v_zakharovoy/ and in Vietnamese: https://vietnam.mid.ru/vi/press-centre/news/tr_ch_cu_c_h_p_b_o_c_a_m_v_zakharova/.

[16] “Bộ Ngoại Giao Nga Lên Tiếng Chỉ Trích Sự Thiếu Hiểu Biết Của Ukraina Khi Xuyên Tạc Về Chủ Tịch HCM” [“Russian Foreign Ministry Criticizes Ukraine’s Ignorance When Distorting [Representation] of President Ho Chi Minh”], 17 April 2022, https://www.facebook.com/MatThan.Official/videos/1054424731812359

[17] Hoang Thi Ha and Dien Nguyen An Luong, “The Russia-Ukraine War.”

[18] Dien Nguyen An Luong and Amirul Adli Bin Rosli, “Vietnam Netizens’ Reactions at Odds with Vietnam’s Stance on Ukraine,” Fulcrum, 16 March 2022, https://fulcrum.sg/vietnam-netizens-reactions-at-odds-with-vietnams-stance-on-ukraine/.

[19] This is based on numerous posts on Facebook as well as conversations with Vietnamese and expats living in Vietnam.

[20] See, for example, Olga Dror, “Establishing Hồ Chí Minh’s Cult: Vietnamese Traditions and Their Transformations,” The Journal of Asian Studies 75, no. 2 (2016), pp. 433-466.

[21] More and more young Vietnamese do not see Ho Chi Minh as an indispensable element of their lives despite the state’s efforts. In the market economy, it is becoming more difficult to inundate book stores with books by or about Ho Chi Minh. As a result, the circulation of these works is quite limited. If in the past a publishing house would publish a 100,000 or 200,000 copies of such books, currently the run is often limited to 300 to 500 copies.

[22] Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh Ahead of U.S.-ASEAN Summit”, 11 May 2022, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/event/220511_Prime_Minister_Chinh_0.pdf.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.  
© Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.
Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok   Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong  
Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha.  
Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng  
Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng  
Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).

 

2022/55 “It Takes Two to Tango: Vietnam-US Relations in the New Context” by Hong Kong Nguyen and Pham Muoi Nguyen

 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meets with Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh during a bilateral meeting in Washington, DC, on 13 May 2022. Photo: Jose Luis Magana/POOL/AFP.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  • Shifts in global politics, particularly in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, raise questions about the prospects of Vietnam’s cooperative partnership with countries that are imposing anti-Russia sanctions, particularly the United States.
  • Since their diplomatic normalisation in 1995, Vietnam and the US have continuously strengthened their economic ties and deepened cooperation in both traditional and non-traditional security issues, a trend that is likely to endure in the future, given the increasing importance that the two countries attach to their bilateral relationship.
  • Vietnam’s delicate balancing act between major powers suggests that it is unlikely to advance a relationship with one power at the expense of another. Instead, it will try to maintain an independent position and promote ties with all powers, where possible.
  • While Vietnam and the United States increasingly see eye-to-eye on a number of strategic issues, certain political differences between the two remain. Going forward, they will need to address such differences while maintaining frequent political, economic, cultural and military exchanges in order to build an enduring partnership.
  • Upgrading ties to the strategic partnership level should also be a bilateral goal in the short to medium term.

*Hong Kong Nguyen is a PhD student in International Relations at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University and a non-resident WSD-Handa fellow at Pacific Forum. Pham Muoi Nguyen is a former Wall Street Journal reporter based in Hanoi and is currently director of Vietnam Panorama (Toan Viet), a private media monitoring company.

ISEAS Perspective 2022/55, 23 May 2022

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INTRODUCTION

When US President Joe Biden released his Indo-Pacific Strategy on 11 February 2022, Vietnam was named one of the leading regional partners of the United States, alongside India, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, and the Pacific Islands.[1] Over the past two years, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Vietnam has also been visited by various senior US officials, including then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2020, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Vice President Kamala Harris in 2021. All signs were pointing toward a positive trajectory for bilateral relations until Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February. In the two months that followed, Vietnam found itself among a minority of countries that did not support efforts by America and its allies to punish Russia for its invasion. Specifically, Hanoi abstained on two United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolutions that condemned Russia’s invasion and demanded civilian protection and humanitarian access in Ukraine, and voted against a resolution that suspended Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.

Hanoi’s votes on the above resolutions disappointed Western countries. On 8 March, ambassadors of the European Union, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom in Hanoi co-signed a letter urging Vietnam to stand with Ukraine because the Soviet Union, Vietnam’s historical ally, “is long gone and we are in a new era.”[2] However, from Hanoi’s perspective, Russia remains a highly important partner, especially in terms of arms supplies[3] and oil and gas cooperation.[4] Amid the growing pressure to side with the West on the Ukrainian issue, the Vietnamese government has continued business as usual, trying to maintain a balance between the major powers. On 12 March, Vietnam gave the green light for Gazprom International, a subsidiary of the Russian state-owned Gazprom, to go ahead with a US$293 million gas-fired power plant in the central province of Quang Tri.[5] Two weeks later, Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son welcomed US Department of State Counselor Derek Chollet in Hanoi, and in early May, Vietnam announced that it would provide US$500,000 in humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

The chain of events raises questions about the prospects of Vietnam’s cooperation with partners that impose anti-Russia sanctions, particularly the United States. As Hanoi and Washington will mark ten years of their “comprehensive partnership” in 2023, this provides a timely opportunity to review recent developments in bilateral relations and assess their prospects, especially regarding the potential upgrading of bilateral ties to the “strategic partnership” level.

CEMENTING COMMON GROUND

Expectations for deepening Vietnam-US relations are grounded in a number of factors, but none clearer than the increasingly robust bilateral economic ties (Figure 1). The US is currently Vietnam’s second-largest trading partner after China, while Vietnam is among the top ten trading partners of the US. Between 2016 and 2021, two-way trade turnover more than doubled to US$111.56 billion.[6] In terms of foreign direct investment, America is Vietnam’s 11th biggest investor, with a total of 1,138 projects and accumulative registered capital of US$10.28 billion as of end-2021, up 32.8 per cent and 4.10 per cent from 2017, respectively.[7]

Vietnam’s emergence as a major trading partner of America has been driven partly by shifts in regional supply chains, such as the higher manufacturing costs in China as well as the trade frictions between China and the US. For this reason, although Vietnam and the US are not mutual parties to any comprehensive trade agreements, bilateral trade is likely to maintain its growth momentum. Recently, Washington has announced its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), an attempt to re-engage Asia in the economic domain. Although the IPEF does not offer greater access to the US market, it is envisioned as an inclusive and flexible framework, covering a wide range of issues, from trade facilitation, technology, digital economy, cross-border data flow, clean energy, infrastructure, to high labour and environmental standards.[8] With the US hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in 2023, Vietnam and other APEC members can expect the US to take further concrete measures to roll out the IPEF, thereby further deepening America’s economic ties with the region.

Several outstanding trade issues remain between the two countries, including the US Trade Representative’s investigation into Vietnam’s timber trade practices, strict US regulations over the import of Vietnamese catfish, and high anti-dumping tariff on Vietnamese honey.[9] However, these are rather minor issues that are unlikely to significantly constrain bilateral ties going forward.

The two countries are also increasingly aligned on a host of traditional and non-traditional security issues. According to the US Department of State, between 2015 and 2019, the US authorized the permanent export of more than US$32.3 million in defense articles to Vietnam through Direct Commercial Sales. It also registered over US$162 million in active Foreign Military Sales with Vietnam during this period. From 2017 to 2021, Washington provided Hanoi with about US$60 million in security assistance under the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) programme and more than US$20 million under the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative.[10] The FMF spending, which supports capacity building for Vietnam in military education and maritime security/domain awareness, is the third-highest by the US in ASEAN, jumping from merely US$100,000 in 2012 to US$40 million in 2019.[11] At a press conference in Hanoi on 20 April 2022, Ambassador Marc Knapper disclosed that the US was preparing to transfer a third coast guard cutter to Vietnam.[12] The announcement was made despite Vietnam’s unwillingness to side with the West on the Ukraine issue, showing the Biden administration’s strong commitment to promoting ties with Vietnam.

Deepening military-to-military ties are also evidenced by the frequency of US port calls to Vietnam. As shown in Figure 2, between 2009 and 2020, Vietnam received a total of 28 visits by US military vessels, including 13 official port calls, two oceanographic survey missions,[13] and six voyage repairs. There were also nine multilateral humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) preparedness missions within the annual US-led Pacific Partnership framework.

On non-traditional security issues, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is implementing different projects in Vietnam that focus on, among other things, infectious diseases control and prevention, environmental security, and overcoming war legacies.[14] Notably, by early May, America had donated nearly 40 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to Vietnam, in addition to US$23.46 million in COVID-19 assistance through USAID.[15] Another potential area for cooperation is energy; the US is committed to helping Vietnam reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop clean and renewable energy.[16] Vietnam has also approved the USAID Vietnam Low Emission Energy Program II—a five-year US$36-million clean energy project announced by Vice President Kamala Harris during her visit to Vietnam in August 2021.

Currently, the two sides are doing a major dioxin remediation project at Bien Hoa air base, the largest remaining dioxin hot spot in the country.[17] The project, costing US$390 million, was launched in 2019 and would take at least ten years to complete. Although Vietnam and the US have moved beyond past hostilities towards talks of strategic alignment, addressing war legacies remains an important and relevant bilateral goal. The two countries only elevated their relationship to a “comprehensive partnership” in 2013, one year after the US initiated the first major programme for dioxin cleanup in Vietnam.[18] Addressing war legacy issues, including dioxin remediation, unexploded ordnance removal, cooperation on wartime remains recovery, and support for individuals affected by the war, is thus critical to cementing the common ground for a stronger, lasting partnership between the two former enemies.

REALITY CHECK

A recurring question over the past few years is whether and when Vietnam and the US would forge a strategic partnership. The idea was first proposed by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton during her visit to Hanoi in 2012 and has since been reiterated by numerous US senior officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris. In the nomination hearing at the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on 13 July 2021 for the post of US Ambassador to Vietnam, Marc Knapper said it would be a priority, both for him and America, to develop a strategic relationship with Vietnam during his posting in Hanoi.[19] According to Knapper, this objective can be realized by focusing on three aspects: “strengthening even further our security relationship,” “strengthening our trade and economic ties,” and “deepening our people-to-people ties.” Knapper reaffirmed this aspiration in an interview with a state-run Vietnamese newspaper in February, noting that the upgraded partnership would reflect the genuine nature of bilateral ties going forward.[20] He reiterated this point in April and May, suggesting an upgrade in 2023 as befitting to mark the 10th anniversary of the Vietnam-US comprehensive partnership.

While Vietnam is interested in strengthening ties with the US, China and Russia continue to feature prominently in Hanoi’s strategic calculations. Both countries, seen as America’s strategic rivals, are Vietnam’s “comprehensive strategic partners”—the highest level in Hanoi’s hierarchy of diplomatic relations. As a matter of fact, Vietnam maintains close cooperation with China and Russia in all the three areas that Ambassador Knapper mentioned. For example, while Vietnam is reliant on Russia for arms imports and oil and gas operations in the South China Sea, it is also heavily dependent on China for imports of a wide range of production inputs. As a result, Hanoi has been unwilling to upset its ties with Russia despite western pressures. At the same time, it is also trying to maintain regular high-level exchanges with Beijing despite China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

The nature of Vietnam’s relationships with China and Russia is not lost on the US. Although that will unlikely discourage Washington from strengthening ties with Hanoi, it prefers a higher diplomatic status, no less important than Vietnam’s three comprehensive strategic partners (China, Russia, and India) or its other 14 strategic partners (Japan, South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, France, Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand).

To this end, both sides need to understand and even accept certain differences, and on that basis, deepen their cooperation. In a meeting with Ambassador Knapper in Hanoi on 30 March, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh mentioned the need for trust-building, particularly through overcoming war legacies.[21] The Vietnamese leader underlined that the comprehensive partnership should be deepened on the basis of “respect for each other’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, political regimes and differences.” The “differences” undoubtedly include the human rights situation in Vietnam that the US has long expressed concerns about. However, even this issue is unlikely to be a major obstacle to bilateral ties going forward. Wishing to focus on economic and strategic cooperation with Hanoi to counter the China challenge, Washington has recently been less critical of Hanoi’s human rights record, making the Vietnamese leadership more comfortable in strengthening ties with Washington.

While the declaration of a strategic partnership between the two countries remains unlikely for now, the steady growth trajectory of bilateral ties since their normalisation in 1995 indicates the making of a reliable partnership. From economic to security cooperation, both sides are seeing eye-to-eye on various issues of strategic importance. In particular, Vietnam supports security-defense cooperative mechanisms suitable to its capabilities and interests, including those in the Indo-Pacific region, as affirmed in Vietnam’s 2019 Defense White Paper.[22] Vietnam and the US also share the same vision for a peaceful and stable regional rules-based order, and the respect for international law and the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

Such positions are unlikely to be affected by the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict. If anything, the conflict is a useful lesson for the Vietnamese leadership. The ever-increasing pressures on Vietnam to side with either the US or Russia would only reinforce Hanoi’s long-standing belief that not taking sides is a wise decision given its strong desire for strategic autonomy. This view has been clarified by Former Deputy Minister of Defense Nguyen Chi Vinh, who stated in a recent interview that “Vietnam is not neutral, Vietnam is independent. Being independent is utterly different from being neutral. We are independent on the basis of ethical principles, international law, and Vietnam’s interests.”[23] Such an emphasis on independence may add further momentum to Vietnam–US ties if Hanoi sees a strengthened partnership with America as essential to its efforts to maintain strategic autonomy and independence, especially in the face of rising pressures from an increasingly assertive China. However, it may also mean that Vietnam will push back against America’s efforts to impose its will on Hanoi, including in the Ukraine issue, if Hanoi considers Washington’s pressures too intrusive and detrimental to its strategic independence.

CONCLUSION

Just as it has taken Vietnam and the United States decades to transform their relationship from foes to friends, it will take time for the two countries to build trust and deepen their current partnership. During this process, bilateral dialogues and engagements in different domains, including trade and investment, cultural, education and people-to-people exchanges, as well as defense and security cooperation activities, should be further strengthened and promoted.

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh led a Vietnamese delegation on a working visit to the US on 11-17 May, and joined the Special US-ASEAN Summit in Washington D.C. on 12-13 May. As Chinh’s visit was not a formal bilateral one, there was no bilateral meeting between Chinh and President Joseph Biden. However, during a short meeting on the sidelines of the summit, the two leaders touched on the “special” Vietnam-US relationship and reiterated their commitment to bolster bilateral cooperation.[24] President Biden also accepted Chinh’s invitation to visit Vietnam and said he would arrange it at a mutually suitable time. Should the visit happen, ideally next year when the two countries celebrate the 10th anniversary of their comprehensive partnership, it may be the right opportunity for the two sides to upgrade their relationship to the strategic partnership level as a landmark for their deepening ties over the past ten years and pave the way for an even stronger relationship going forward.

ENDNOTES


[1] White House, “FACT SHEET: Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States,” 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/02/11/fact-sheet-indo-pacific-strategy-of-the-united-states/.

[2] “Op-Ed by the Ambassadors of the European Union, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom in Hanoi,” Delegation of the European Union to Vietnam, 8 March 2022, https://www.eeas.europa.eu/delegations/vietnam/op-ed-ambassadors-european-union-norway-switzerland-and-united-kingdom-hanoi_en.

[3] Although Vietnam has been trying to diversify its arms imports away from Russia since 2014, Russia still accounted for 68.4 per cent of Vietnam’s arms imports in the period 2015-2021. See Le Hong Hiep, “Will Vietnam be able to wean itself off Russian arms?”, Fulcrum, 4April 2022.

[4] According to state media reports, about 30 per cent of crude oil and about 25 per cent of gas in Vietnam are exploited by firms involving investments from Russian companies such as Zarubezhneft, Rosneft, and Gazprom. See: Thanh Dat, “Russia-Vietnam plans displaying confidence, ” Vietnam Investment Review, 6 December 2021, https://vir.com.vn/russia-vietnam-plans-displaying-confidence-89887.html.

[5] Hoang Hiep and Van Tuan, “Gazprom International sẽ đầu tư dự án điện khí 297 triệu USD tại Quảng Trị [Gazprom International to invest in a gas-fired power plant worth USD297 million in Quang Tri], ” Vietnam Finance, 12 March 2022, https://vietnamfinance.vn/gazprom-international-se-dau-tu-du-an-dien-khi-297-trieu-usd-tai-quang-tri-20180504224266050.htm.

[6] “Tình hình xuất khẩu, nhập khẩu hàng hóa của Việt Nam tháng 12 và 12 tháng/2021 [Exports, imports of Vietnam in December and 12 months of 2021], ” Vietnam Customs, 19 January 2022, https://tongcuc.customs.gov.vn/portal/index.jsp?pageId=442&tkId=4682&group=Ph%C3%A2n%20t%C3%ADch&category=Ph%C3%A2n%20t%C3%ADch%20%C4%91%E1%BB%8Bnh%20k%E1%BB%B3.

[7] “Tình hình thu hút đầu tư nước ngoài tại Việt Nam năm 2021 [Foreign Direct Investment in Vietnam in 2021], ” Foreign Investment Agency, 24 December 2021, https://fia.mpi.gov.vn/Detail/CatID/f3cb5873-74b1-4a47-a57c-a491e0be4051/NewsID/5d476094-8272-4d9d-b810-1609ce7b67b3/MenuID.

[8] Andreyka Natalegawa and Gregory B. Poling, “The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and Digital Trade in Southeast Asia, ” CSIS, 5 May 2022, https://www.csis.org/analysis/indo-pacific-economic-framework-and-digital-trade-southeast-asia.

[9] Congressional Research Service, Vietnam’s Economy and U.S. Trade: Key Issues in 2021, 1 February 2021, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF11753. While the anti-dumping duty for Vietnamese honey has decreased from 410.93% – 413.99% in the preliminary conclusion to 58.74% – 61.27%, the tax rates are ten times as much as those imposed on honey imported into the US from India (5.85%). See Thanh Nguyen and Ha Thanh. “Vietnamese honey cannot compete in the US despite the deep reduction in taxes, ” Customs News, 6 May 2022, https://english.haiquanonline.com.vn/vietnamese-honey-cannot-compete-in-the-us-despite-the-deep-reduction-in-taxes-22358.html.

[10] US Department of State, “U.S. Security Cooperation With Vietnam, ” 2 June 2021, https://www.state.gov/u-s-security-cooperation-with-vietnam/.

[11] Stephen Burgess, “The US–Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership and the Key Role of Air Force Relations, ” Air University, 13 December 2021, https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/JIPA/Display/Article/2870567/the-usvietnam-comprehensive-partnership-and-the-key-role-of-air-force-relations/.

[12] Viet Anh, “Time to upgrade US-Vietnam relationship, says US envoy, ” VnExpress International, 20 April 2022, https://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/time-to-upgrade-us-vietnam-relationship-says-us-envoy-4453788.html.

[13] These missions were jointly operated by US naval ships and Vietnamese vessels. For instance, the mission in 2011 was a month-long one conducted by the US Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and the Vietnamese Office for Seeking Missing Persons.

[14] USAID Vietnam, “USAID/Vietnams Country Development Cooperation Strategy (2020-2025),” 2022, https://www.usaid.gov/vietnam/cdcs.

[15] USAID Vietnam, “COVID-19 Assistance,” 2022, https://www.usaid.gov/vietnam/covid-19-assistance.

[16] “Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry visited Vietnam, ” U.S. Embassy & Consulate in Vietnam, 2 March 2022, https://vn.usembassy.gov/special-presidential-envoy-for-climate-john-kerry-visited-vietnam/; “Vietnam seeks US investment in renewable energy,” Vietnam News Agency, 14 March 2022, https://en.vietnamplus.vn/vietnam-seeks-us-investment-in-renewable-energy/223430.vnp.

[17] Vi Vu, “Vietnam, US launch dioxin cleanup at Bien Hoa airbase, ” VnExpress International, 20 April 2019, https://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/vietnam-us-launch-dioxin-cleanup-at-bien-hoa-airbase-3912324.html.

[18] Thomas Fuller, “4 Decades on, U.S. Starts Cleanup of Agent Orange in Vietnam, ” New York Times, 9 August 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/10/world/asia/us-moves-to-address-agent-orange-contamination-in-vietnam.html.

[19] U.S. Congress, “Nominations – Tuesday, 13 July 2021,” https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/07%2013%202021%20Nominations%20–%20Smith%20Bitter%20Medina%20Knapper.pdf.

[20] Quynh Trung and Lan Huong, “Đại Sứ Marc Knapper: Việt Nam luôn chiếm vị trí độc nhất trong trái tim tôi’ [Ambassador Marc Knapper: ‘Vietnam always holds a unique place in my heart’],” Tuoi Tre, 2022,  https://tuoitre.vn/dai-su-marc-knapper-viet-nam-luon-chiem-vi-tri-doc-nhat-trong-trai-tim-toi-20220220154544323.htm.

[21] “Thủ tướng Phạm Minh Chính tiếp Đại sứ Hoa Kỳ Marc Evans Knapper [PM Pham Minh Chinh meets with U.S. Ambassador Marc Evans Knapper],” Vietnam News Agency, 30 April 2022, https://www.vietnamplus.vn/thu-tuong-pham-minh-chinh-tiep-dai-su-hoa-ky-marc-evans-knapper/781091.vnp.

[22] Ministry of Defense, “Quốc Phòng Việt Nam 2019,” 2019, http://mod.gov.vn/wps/wcm/connect/a7f22b32-724d-4643-9301-878e2ca4d8db/QuocphongVietNam2019.pdf.

[23] Van Kien and Luan Dung, “Thượng tướng Nguyễn Chí Vịnh: Việt Nam không chọn phe, Việt Nam độc lập! [Lieutenent General Nguyen Chi Vinh: Vietnam does not take side, Vietnam is independent!],” Tien Phong, 30 April 2022, https://tienphong.vn/thuong-tuong-nguyen-chi-vinh-viet-nam-khong-chon-phe-viet-nam-doc-lap-post1433614.tpo.

[24] “PM Pham Minh Chinh Meets with US President Joe Biden,” Nhan Dan, 13 May 2022, https://en.nhandan.vn/politics/item/11486202-pm-pham-minh-chinh-meets-with-us-president-joe-biden.html.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.  
© Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.
Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok  
Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong  
Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha.  
Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng  
Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng  
Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).

 

2022/46 “Vietnam’s Peacekeeping Contributions: Drivers and Prospects” by Phan Xuan Dung and Nguyen Cao Viet Hung

 

Vietnamese forces taking part in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan march with flags before their departure in Hanoi on 27 April 2022. Nhac NGUYEN/AFP.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  • Despite being a newcomer, Vietnam has emerged as an active contributor to United Nations Peacekeeping Operations (UN PKO).
  • In the past, Vietnam was sceptical of such peacekeeping operations, but its quest for international integration under the Đổi Mới (Renovation) policy gradually socialised Vietnam into these peacekeeping norms.
  • Vietnam’s growing peacekeeping commitments are also motivated by perceived gains from joining UN PKO, namely strengthened national defence capabilities and enhanced international reputation.
  • Vietnam aims to scale up peacekeeping participation but will abstain from coercive or combat activities.
  • Championing women’s participation in peacekeeping could be a niche diplomacy area for Vietnam, given the country’s success in this regard and its efforts in advancing the UN agenda on women, peace and security.

*Phan Xuan Dung is a research officer at the Vietnam Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. Nguyen Cao Viet Hung is an MA student at the Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University, Japan.

ISEAS Perspective 2022/46, 29 April 2022

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INTRODUCTION

Participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations (UN PKO) has been a major item in Vietnam’s foreign policy and defence diplomacy over the past decade. In 2013, the Politburo of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) ratified the Master Plan on Vietnam’s Participation in UN PKO,[1] and the Vietnamese National Assembly subsequently amended the Constitution to allow armed soldiers to be deployed overseas.[2] In 2014, Vietnam established the Vietnam Peacekeeping Centre—which was later upgraded to the Vietnam Department of Peacekeeping Operations (VDPO)—and began sending officers to peacekeeping missions. In November 2020, the National Assembly unanimously passed Resolution 130/2020/QH14, providing a comprehensive legal framework for Vietnamese troops to engage in peacekeeping activities.[3]

Despite being a newcomer, Vietnam has emerged as an active contributor to UN PKO. Since 2014, Vietnam has deployed 512 personnel to UN headquarters and peacekeeping missions in South Sudan and Central Africa.[4] These include 76 military officers (military advisors, observers and liaison officers), 252 medical personnel of level-2 field hospitals, and 184 sappers.

This paper analyses the rationale behind Vietnam’s peacekeeping contributions. We posit two drivers behind this trend: Vietnam’s socialisation into peacekeeping norms and its expectation to strengthen its national defence capabilities and enhance its international reputation. The paper will also assess Vietnam’s future peacekeeping contributions.

VIETNAM’S SOCIALISATION INTO PEACEKEEPING NORMS

Vietnam’s recent enthusiasm with regard to peacekeeping contributions was a complete departure from its previous position. In 1993, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali raised the idea of Vietnam participating in UN PKO, but Hanoi was not fond of the suggestion.[5] From 1975 until 1994, Vietnam even eschewed paying its annual peacekeeping levy as a UN member.[6]  One apparent reason behind Vietnam’s indifference to UN PKO for such a long time was the lack of resources for external commitments. Facing several challenges to its post-war economic management, Vietnam was preoccupied with domestic issues and thus could not afford to pursue what it saw as expensive policy objectives. But even if Vietnam had managed to overcome the problem of insufficient resources, it would still have been reluctant to support UN PKO for other reasons. In a piece published on the website of VDPO, Deputy Foreign Minister Le Hoai Trung lists three considerations that informed Vietnam’s former unfavourable view of UN PKO.[7] First, due to the country’s historical experience of foreign invasions, Vietnam was averse to sending troops overseas and perceived peacekeeping activities as a tool for the United States and Western nations to infringe upon other countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. Second, Vietnam was concerned about several risks associated with UN PKO such as potential political complications, risks to human lives, and risks of great power manipulation. Third, Vietnam was new to this field and lacked relevant knowledge, experience and participation capacity.

However, these reservations gradually dissipated as Vietnam opened up and embarked on international integration under its market-based economic reforms since the late 1980s. Back then, in order to ensure its survival, Vietnam aimed at creating a stable and peaceful external environment conducive to its internal socio-economic development. Thus, improving its external relations toward peace and cooperation became a foreign policy priority. At its 7th National Congress in 1991, the CPV stated that Vietnam “wants to become friends with all countries in the world community.”[8] The once-pariah state then embarked on a quest to mend ties with neighbouring and Western countries. This culminated in Vietnam’s accession to ASEAN in 1995 and its diplomatic normalisation with the United States in the same year. Subsequently, the Political Report of the 9th CPV National Congress in 2001 stated that Vietnam would multilateralise and diversify its relations and be “ready to become a reliable friend and partner to countries in the world community, striving for peace, independence, and development.”[9]

With the economic benefits and diplomatic success attained under the new foreign policy, Vietnam gained the confidence to deepen engagement with the broader international community. By the latter half of the 2000s, Vietnam had entered a phase of “proactive international integration”, moving beyond economic cooperation and venturing into other areas. The 10th CPV National Congress in 2006 reiterated the principles of multilateralisation and diversification of foreign relations but further stressed that Vietnam ought to “participate proactively in regional and international mechanisms” and conduct “defence and security diplomacy.”[10] Subsequent party congresses continued to reaffirm these foreign policy directions, which provided the conditions for Vietnam to be socialised into peacekeeping norms.

Hanoi began seriously considering the possibility of participating in UN PKO in 2003 when Indonesia, the ASEAN Chair that year, suggested the formation of a regional peacekeeping force.[11] By that time, ASEAN’s five original members—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore—had all contributed to peacekeeping missions. While remaining hesitant, in 2004 and 2005, Vietnamese officials frequently alluded to the possibility of Vietnam contributing to UN PKO in response to ASEAN discussions on the topic and as a way to strengthen the country’s bid for non-permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).[12] From 2005, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) began organising interagency groups on UN PKO, which comprised of representatives from various bodies, such as MOFA, Ministry of National Defence, Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of Finance, Government Office, Office of the National Assembly, and Office of the Central Committee of the CPV.[13] These groups conducted field trips and joined international conferences to study UN peacekeeping missions and the experiences of other countries, thereafter advising MOFA and the Politburo on Vietnam’s participation in peacekeeping activities. Also from 2005, Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) officers started to be sent to overseas training courses on peacekeeping, which exposed them to international and regional peacekeeping norms.[14]

Vietnam’s non-permanent membership in the UNSC (2008-09) also deepened its interest in UN PKO. Having gained a better understanding of the critical role of blue-helmet soldiers in providing security and protecting civilians in conflict zones, Vietnamese representatives to the UN frequently voiced their country’s support for peacekeeping activities.[15] A concomitant perception shift occurred at home. Vietnam’s 2009 Defence White Paper became the country’s first defence white paper that mentioned peacekeeping, noting that “Vietnam greatly appreciates the role of the UN and regards the peacekeeping operations as an important function of the UN.”[16]

Through deepened interactions with the international community, Vietnam was convinced that peacekeeping participation would not be at odds but compatible with its overarching foreign policy goals of peace, diversification, multilateralisation, and proactive international integration. Today, Vietnam has fully reckoned that if it wants to be seen as “a responsible member of the international community,” it needs to become a peacekeeper donor country and internalise peacekeeping norms. This thinking is reflected in Vietnam’s 2019 Defence White Paper, which notes that:

As a responsible member of the international community, Viet Nam is keen on fulfilling its duties while actively cooperating with other nations to address emerging security issues, contributing to the protection of peace and stability in the region and the world. Viet Nam appreciates the role of the UN in peacekeeping operations and prevention of conflict and war. Viet Nam upholds standards and norms of international relations set forth in the Charter of the United Nations [emphasis added]. [17]

PERCEIVED BENEFITS FROM PEACEKEEPING PARTICIPATION

Two perceived benefits are behind Hanoi’s peacekeeping commitments: Enhanced national defence capabilities and increased international reputation.

Enhanced National Defence Capabilities

Vietnamese defence officials believe that peacekeeping participation can help strengthen the country’s defence capabilities. An article on the website of VDPO suggests that Vietnam’s venture into peacekeeping contributes to “the building of [a] revolutionary, formal, elite and increasingly modern People’s Army.”[18] One reason is that Vietnam’s peacekeeping cooperation with other countries attracts foreign defence-related resources and assistance for the VPA. At a conference reviewing Vietnam’s involvement in peacekeeping operations from 2012 to 2020, Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Chi Vinh, then-Deputy Defence Minister, asserted that participating in UN PKO had become a pillar in the VPA’s defence diplomacy and a spotlight in its multilateral cooperation.[19] So far, Vietnam has signed memorandums of understanding on peacekeeping cooperation with nine countries, the UN and the European Union.[20] Some partners, such as the United States, France, Japan and Australia, have supported Vietnam with training, facilities, equipment, vehicles and transportation of peacekeepers to UN PKO.[21] Vietnamese personnel can therefore acquire defence-related experiences and foreign-language skills necessary for their missions from foreign partners. Peacekeeping partnerships also serve as confidence-building measures between the VPA and other armies, laying the ground for future cooperation and interoperability in other areas.

Participation in UN PKO also facilitates Vietnam’s exchange of best practices and critical information with other countries on a wide range of civil and defence matters, especially in the context of modern warfare and traditional and non-traditional security threats. As Senior Lieutenant General Vinh noted, Vietnam’s greater involvement in international security affairs through UN PKO complements the national strategy of “preventing the risks of war and conflict from afar.”[22] The strategy entails proactively identifying and neutralising potential threats to Vietnam’s national interests at an early stage, during peacetime, and with the long-term goal of preserving a stable and peaceful environment for internal socio-economic development. By gaining insights on the ground and through UN discussions on peacekeeping missions, Vietnamese policymakers can better grasp the causes of conflict and ways to manage them, thereby refining national defence strategy. In other words, Vietnam sees peacekeeping participation as a means to shape external conditions in its favour.

Increased International Reputation

Vietnam’s contribution to UN PKO can also help the country gain credibility as a responsible UN member, augmenting its overall global diplomatic standing. Notably, Vietnam’s growing peacekeeping profile was a factor behind its successful bid for the UNSC non-permanent membership for the 2020-21 term. According to Dang Dinh Quy, Permanent Representative of Vietnam to the UN, Vietnam’s peacekeeping activities elevate its image and relations with the UN while providing critical information for the country to fulfil its UNSC duties effectively.[23] Vietnam has also been recognised for promoting women’s empowerment in peacekeeping. A 2020 background paper by the Vietnam office of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) notes that the country is a successful case regarding increasing the proportion of women in deployed troops, at 16 per cent.[24] This figure is higher than the UN’s recommended proportion of 15 per cent—a fact frequently cited by Vietnamese media and officials. The UN has chosen Vietnam as the venue to organise several training programmes for peacekeepers from regional countries. This decision reflects the organisation’s high regard for Hanoi’s growing peacekeeping profile.

In addition to peacekeeping duties, the VPA tasks its peacekeepers with an auxiliary mission of acting as “peace messengers” to promote the virtues of “Uncle Ho’s soldiers”,[25] the VPA’s “tradition of heroism”, and positive aspects of the Vietnamese nation and people.[26] Outside of their official missions, Vietnamese blue helmets often volunteer to help the host countries’ people with daily tasks, provide education for local children, and organise programmes to introduce Vietnamese culture and cuisine to the local population. These activities help burnish Vietnam’s image as a reliable, friendly and peace-loving nation.

Since improving international prestige is an objective of its peacekeeping contributions, Vietnam is attuned to how its peacekeepers have been lauded for their dedication and professionalism. According to President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told him that Vietnamese personnel had fulfilled their duties in an excellent manner and acted as exemplars for peacekeepers from other countries.[27] In an international symposium, Deputy Defense Minister Hoang Xuan Chien remarked that Vietnamese female soldiers had been “highly appreciated by the United Nations for their professionalism, ability to fulfil missions and becoming a highlight in many UN activities in field missions.”[28] Meanwhile, Major General Hoang Kim Phung, Director of VDPO, claimed that the UN’s and international friends’ recognition of Vietnam’s contributions was his department’s “biggest success.”[29] These statements highlight how attentive leaders in Hanoi are to international perception of Vietnam as a peacekeeping contributor.

PROSPECTS OF VIETNAM’S PEACEKEEPING CONTRIBUTIONS

In the coming years, boosting peacekeeping contributions will remain a major diplomatic and defence task for Vietnam. The Political Report of the 13th CPV National Congress in 2021 reaffirms the Party’s vision for national defence and foreign policy priorities, which emphasises a peaceful external environment, protection of the Homeland from afar, enhanced defence diplomacy, and effective and proactive participation in multilateral organisations, including the UN.[30] It specifically notes that Vietnam should step up international cooperation and integration on defence and security, and contribute positively and effectively to UN PKO. President Phuc, who is also Chairman of the National Defence and Security Council, has asked the VPA to study and participate in more peacekeeping fields, enlarge the number of peacekeepers, and explore more operating geographical areas.[31]

In terms of future personnel deployments, Vietnam is considering foot soldiers, police officers, and helicopter troops.[32] Hanoi is keen on enhancing the effectiveness of its peacekeeping contributions by focusing on capacity-building, aiming to be a leading nation in the region in the field. Notably, Vietnam has sought support from the UN to upgrade its peacekeeping training centre into an Asia-Pacific regional facility, focusing on engineering, medical, foreign language and legal training.[33] Going forward, Vietnam should conduct more policy research, increase budget for VDPO, and expand international collaboration on peacekeeping to realise these objectives and further enhance the performance of its blue helmets.

At the same time, Vietnam will abstain from coercive and combat activities, limiting its participation to consulting, humanitarian and logistical tasks. The country is cautious about appearing to side with a coalition against another country, which would contravene its key defence principles and hamper its endeavour to befriend all nations. Hanoi has therefore reached an agreement with the UN to allow Vietnamese personnel to retain the right to forgo missions that would affect Vietnam’s bilateral relationships or go against Vietnamese soldiers’ mannerisms.[34]

Acknowledging the vital role of women in different stages of peacebuilding and post-war reconstruction,[35] Vietnam has actively advanced the UN agenda on women, peace and security (WPS). From November 2020 to March 2022, Vietnam and UN agencies co-organised four international conferences on WPS, three of which took place during Vietnam’s tenures as non-permanent member of the UNSC (2020-21) and ASEAN Chair (2020).[36] As a co-chair of the Expert Working Group on UN Peacekeeping under the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (2021-23), Hanoi has also been working to ensure that the topic of women in peacekeeping is high on the group’s agenda.[37] Building upon its success in increasing the proportion of female personnel in the peacekeeping force, Vietnam now aims to bring the percentage of women working at level-2 field hospitals from the current 21 per cent to 25 per cent.[38] Given its experience and efforts in implementing WPS, Vietnam should designate the promotion of women’s role in peacekeeping as a niche area within its multilateral and defence diplomacy. Doing so will reinforce Vietnam’s image as a responsible member of the UN while making a meaningful impact toward the betterment of global security governance.

ENDNOTES


[1] Chi Vinh Nguyen, “Participation in the UN Peacekeeping Operations – an Important Mission of the Military in the New Period,” National Defense Journal, November 6, 2018, http://tapchiqptd.vn/en/theory-and-practice/participation-in-the-un-peacekeeping-operations-%E2%80%93-an-important-mission-of-the-military-in-/12745.html.

[2] David Capie, “Evolving Attitudes to Peacekeeping in ASEAN” (17th International Symposium on Security Affairs, National Institute for Defense Studies, Japan, 2014), 117, http://www.nids.mod.go.jp/english/event/symposium/pdf/2014/E-06.pdf.

[3] National Assembly of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, “Resolution No. 130/2020/QH14 the Participation in the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces,” November 13, 2020, https://english.luatvietnam.vn/resolution-no-130-2020-qh14-dated-november-13-2020-of-the-national-assembly-on-the-participation-in-the-united-nations-peacekeeping-forces-195365-Doc1.html.

[4] See, “Đội Công binh và Bệnh viện dã chiến Việt Nam lên đường gìn giữ hòa bình quốc tế,” Người Lao Động, April 27,2022, https://nld.com.vn/chinh-tri/doi-cong-binh-va-benh-vien-da-chien-viet-nam-len-duong-gin-giu-hoa-binh-quoc-te-20220427090618065.htm; Hoàng Thùy, “7 Sĩ Quan Tham Gia Gìn Giữ Hòa Bình Liên Hợp Quốc ở Phái Bộ Mới,” VNExpress, January 28, 2022, https://vnexpress.net/7-si-quan-tham-gia-gin-giu-hoa-binh-lien-hop-quoc-o-phai-bo-moi-4422121.html.

[5] Capie, “Evolving Attitudes to Peacekeeping in ASEAN,” 116.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hoài Trung Lê, “Ngoại Giao và Hoạt Động Gìn Giữ Hòa Bình Liên Hợp Quốc,” Vietnam Department of Peacekeeping Operations, March 25, 2021, http://www.vnpkc.gov.vn/tin-tuc/nghien-cuu-trao-doi/ngoai-giao-va-hoat-dong-gin-giu-hoa-binh-lien-hop-quoc.

[8] CPV, “Báo Cáo Chính Trị Của Ban Chấp Hành Trung Ương Khoá VI Trình Tại Đại Hội Đại Biểu Toàn Quốc Lần Thứ VII Của Đảng” (Tư liệu Văn kiện Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam, 2017), https://tulieuvankien.dangcongsan.vn/ban-chap-hanh-trung-uong-dang/dai-hoi-dang/lan-thu-vii/bao-cao-chinh-tri-cua-ban-chap-hanh-trung-uong-khoa-vi-trinh-tai-dai-hoi-dai-bieu-toan-quoc-lan-thu-vii-cua-dang-1800.

[9] CPV, “Báo Cáo Chính Trị Của Ban Chấp Hành Trung Ương Đảng Khoá IX Tại Đại Hội Đại Biểu Toàn Quốc Lần Thứ X Của Đảng” (Tư liệu Văn kiện Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam, 2015), https://tulieuvankien.dangcongsan.vn/ban-chap-hanh-trung-uong-dang/dai-hoi-dang/lan-thu-x/bao-cao-chinh-tri-cua-ban-chap-hanh-trung-uong-dang-khoa-ix-tai-dai-hoi-dai-bieu-toan-quoc-lan-thu-x-cua-dang-1537.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Carlyle A. Thayer, “The Contrasting Cases of Cambodia and Vietnam: Active Engagement and Considering Engagement in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations,” in Asia-Pacific Nations in International Peace Support and Stability Operations, ed. C. Aoi and Y. Heng (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2014), 229.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Lê, “Ngoại Giao và Hoạt Động Gìn Giữ Hòa Bình Liên Hợp Quốc”; Hương Giang and Thanh Tuấn, “Việt Nam Đã Sẵn Sàng Tham Gia Lực Lượng Gìn Giữ Hòa Bình!,” Tuổi Trẻ, January 29, 2014, https://tuoitre.vn/viet-nam-da-san-sang-tham-gia-luc-luong-gin-giu-hoa-binh-591742.htm; Hoàng Thùy, “Trung Tâm Gìn Giữ Hòa Bình Việt Nam Được Thành Lập,” VNexpress, May 27, 2014, https://vnexpress.net/trung-tam-gin-giu-hoa-binh-viet-nam-duoc-thanh-lap-2996223.html.

[14] Thayer, “The Contrasting Cases of Cambodia and Vietnam: Active Engagement and Considering Engagement in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations,” 235–36.

[15] See, for example, “Sudan: Vietnam Supports Mediation Efforts in Congo and Darfur,” Reliefweb, January 30, 2009, https://m.reliefweb.int/report/295703/sudan/sudan-vietnam-supports-mediation-efforts-congo-and-darfur?lang=es; BQT, “Phó Thủ Tướng Chính Phủ Phạm Gia Khiêm Sẽ Chủ Trì Phiên Thảo Luận Mở Của HĐBA,” Sức Khỏe & Đời Sống, July 11, 2008, https://suckhoedoisong.vn/pho-thu-tuong-chinh-phu-pham-gia-khiem-se-chu-tri-phien-thao-luan-mo-cua-hdba-1697264.htm; Ngọc Hà Bùi, “Việt Nam Ủng Hộ Cách Tiếp Cận Toàn Diện Vấn Đề Bảo vệ Người Dân,” Báo Chính Phủ, July 29, 2009, http://baochinhphu.vn/Utilities/PrintView.aspx?distributionid=16891.

[16] Ministry of National Defense, 2009 Vietnam National Defense (Hanoi: National Political Publishing House, 2009), 27.

[17] Ministry of National Defense, 2019 Vietnam National Defense (Hanoi: National Political Publishing House 2019, 2019), 25.

[18] Quỳnh Vân, “Để Màu Cờ Việt Nam Phủ Rộng Hơn Trên Bản Đồ Gìn Giữ Hòa Bình Thế Giới,” Vietnam Department of Peacekeeping Operation, May 28, 2021, http://www.vnpkc.gov.vn/tin-tuc/nghien-cuu-trao-doi/de-mau-co-viet-nam-phu-rong-hon-tren-ban-do-gin-giu-hoa-binh-the-gioi.

[19] Sơn Hà, “Tổng Kết Thành Tựu Việt Nam Tham Gia Hoạt Động Gìn Giữ Hòa Bình Liên Hợp Quốc Giai Đoạn 2012-2020,” Baoquocte.Vn, January 8, 2021, https://baoquocte.vn/tong-ket-thanh-tuu-viet-nam-tham-gia-hoat-dong-gin-giu-hoa-binh-lien-hop-quoc-giai-doan-2012-2020-133411.html.

[20] The nine countries with which Vietnam has signed peacekeeping MOUs are Australia, China, France, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the United States. See Kiều Giang, “Lực Lượng Gìn Giữ Hòa Bình: Góp Phần Nâng Cao vị Thế Của Việt Nam Trên Trường Quốc Tế,” Báo Điện Tử Đảng Cộng Sản Việt Nam, December 2, 2021, https://dangcongsan.vn/chao-xuan-tan-suu-2021/dat-nuoc-vao-xuan/luc-luong-gin-giu-hoa-binh-gop-phan-nang-cao-vi-the-cua-viet-nam-tren-truong-quoc-te-574148.html.

[21] VietnamPlus, “Việt Nam Tham Gia Gìn Giữ Hòa Bình LHQ,” December 30, 2019, https://special.vietnamplus.vn/2019/12/30/viet_nam_gin_giu_hoa_binh_lhq_dau_an/.

[22] Chí Vịnh Nguyễn, “Đóng Góp Của Lực Lượng GGHB LHQ Của Việt Nam Vào Chiến Lược Bảo vệ Tổ Quốc Từ Sớm, Từ Xa Trong Thời Đại Hiện Nay,” Vietnam Department of Peacekeeping Operation, March 30, 2021, http://www.vnpkc.gov.vn/tin-tuc/nghien-cuu-trao-doi/dong-gop-cua-luc-luong-gghb-lhq-cua-viet-nam-vao-chien-luoc-bao-ve-to-quoc-tu-som-tu-xa-trong-thoi-dai-hien-nay.

[23] Đình Quý Đặng, “Đóng Góp Của Lực Lượng GGHB LHQ Của Việt Nam Đối Với Nhiệm Kỳ Ủy Viên Không Thường Trực Hội Đồng Bảo an Liên Hợp Quốc 2020 – 2021 Của Việt Nam,” Vietnam Department of Peacekeeping Operations, March 15, 2021, http://vnpkc.gov.vn/tin-tuc/nghien-cuu-trao-doi/dong-gop-cua-luc-luong-gghb-lhq-cua-viet-nam-doi-voi-nhiem-ky-uy-vien-khong-thuong-truc-hoi-dong-bao-an-lien-hop-quoc-2020-2021-cua-viet-nam.

[24] Jenkins Margaret, “Women and Peacekeeping in ASEAN Countries” (UNDP Vietnam, 2020), 15, https://www.vn.undp.org/content/vietnam/en/home/library/democratic_governance/women-and-peacekeeping-in-asean-countries.html.

[25] “Uncle Ho’s soldiers” is a honour that Vietnamese people confer to members of the VPA. The term also embodies virtues that a VPA soldier should uphold, such as loyalty to the CPV and the people, willingness to overcome all difficulties and fight and sacrifice for the nation, self-discipline, creativity and bravery in conducting their duties, etc. For a detailed explanation of the term, see Ngoc Hoi Nguyen, “‘Uncle Ho’s Soldiers’ – an Undeniable Vietnamese Military Cultural Value,” National Defense Journal, December 22, 2018, http://tapchiqptd.vn/en/events-and-comments/uncle-hos-soldiers-%E2%80%93-an-undeniable-vietnamese-military-cultural-value/13025.html.

[26] Kiều Giang, “Gìn Giữ Hòa Bình – Hoạt Động Quan Trọng Của Đối Ngoại Quốc Phòng Việt Nam,” Báo Điện Tử Đảng Cộng Sản Việt Nam, February 17, 2018, https://dangcongsan.vn/chao-nam-moi-2018/dat-nuoc-vao-xuan/gin-giu-hoa-binh–hoat-dong-quan-trong-cua-doi-ngoai-quoc-phong-viet-nam-473586.html.

[27] Văn An, “Chủ Tịch Nước Tuyên Dương Các Tập Thể và Cá Nhân Có Thành Tích Xuất Sắc Tham Gia Hoạt Động Gìn Giữ Hòa Bình LHQ,” Báo Thế Giới và Việt Nam, October 18, 2021, https://baoquocte.vn/chu-tich-nuoc-tuyen-duong-cac-tap-the-va-ca-nhan-co-thanh-tich-xuat-sac-tham-gia-hoat-dong-gin-giu-hoa-binh-lhq-162097.html.

[28] Vietnam News, “Women Play Key Role in COVID-19 Prevention in UN Peacekeeping Operations,” November 26, 2020, https://vietnamnews.vn/society/813013/women-play-key-role-in-covid-19-prevention-in-un-peacekeeping-operations.html.

[29] Kiều Giang, “Gìn Giữ Hòa Bình – Hoạt Động Quan Trọng Của Đối Ngoại Quốc Phòng Việt Nam.”

[30] CPV, “Báo Cáo Chính Trị Của Ban Chấp Hành Trung Ương Đảng Khoá XII Tại Đại Hội Đại Biểu Toàn Quốc Lần Thứ XIII Của Đảng” (Tư liệu Văn kiện Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam, 2021), https://tulieuvankien.dangcongsan.vn/ban-chap-hanh-trung-uong-dang/dai-hoi-dang/lan-thu-xiii/bao-cao-chinh-tri-cua-ban-chap-hanh-trung-uong-dang-khoa-xii-tai-dai-hoi-dai-bieu-toan-quoc-lan-thu-xiii-cua-3734.

[31] Vietnam News, “President Requests More Solutions to Non-Traditional Security Challenges,” December 8, 2021, https://vietnamnews.vn/politics-laws/1094868/president-requests-more-solutions-to-non-traditional-security-challenges.html.

[32] Hoàng Thùy, “‘Việt Nam Xem Xét Cử Đội Trực Thăng Tham Gia Gìn Giữ Hòa Bình,’” VNExpress, December 1, 2021, https://vnexpress.net/viet-nam-xem-xet-cu-doi-truc-thang-tham-gia-gin-giu-hoa-binh-4219516.html; Hong Giang, “Vietnamese Police Eager to Join UN Peacekeeping Activities,” Ministry of Public Security, June 5, 2021, http://en.bocongan.gov.vn/international-relations-cooperation/vietnamese-police-eager-to-join-un-peacekeeping-activities-t7996.html.

[33] Quỳnh Vân, “Để Màu Cờ Việt Nam Phủ Rộng Hơn Trên Bản Đồ Gìn Giữ Hòa Bình Thế Giới.”

[34] Hoàng Thùy, “‘Việt Nam Xem Xét Cử Đội Trực Thăng Tham Gia Gìn Giữ Hòa Bình.’”

[35] Anh Sơn, “Liên Hợp Quốc Cần Quan Tâm Thúc Đẩy Thực Hiện Chương Trình Nghị Sự về Phụ Nữ, Hòa Bình và an Ninh,” Báo Thế Giới và Việt Nam, July 12, 2021, https://baoquocte.vn/lien-hop-quoc-can-quan-tam-thuc-day-thuc-hien-chuong-trinh-nghi-su-ve-phu-nu-hoa-binh-va-an-ninh-167168.html; Margaret, “Women and Peacekeeping in ASEAN Countries,” 25.

[36] These are International Symposium on ‘The Role of Women and Prevention of COVID-19 Pandemic in Peacekeeping Operations’ (November 2020), International Conference on ‘Strengthening Women’s Role in Building and Sustaining Peace: From Commitments to Results’ (December 2020), International Conference on ‘Accelerating Implementation of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda: The Role of National Action Plans’ (December 2021), and International Workshop on ‘Women, Peace and Security National Action Plans: International Experiences and Recommendations for Vietnam’ (March 2022).

[37] Margaret, “Women and Peacekeeping in ASEAN Countries,” 25.

[38] Hoàng Thùy, “Tăng Tỷ Lệ Nữ Tham Gia Gìn Giữ Hòa Bình,” September 22, 2021, https://vnexpress.net/tang-ty-le-nu-tham-gia-gin-giu-hoa-binh-4360562.html.

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2022/14 “Rising Risks from Cross-ownership between Real Estate Developers and Banks in Vietnam” by Tuan Ho, Tuan Huu Nguyen, Trang Thi Ngoc Nguyen, and Tho Ngoc Tran

 

This photograph on 4 December 2020 shows workers carrying goods past a building still under construction in Hanoi. Picture: Nhac NGUYEN / AFP.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  • Since 2010, cross-holdings in commercial banks have been considered by Vietnamese policy makers as a critical issue; this practice encourages non-compliance activities by financial institutions, such as the bypassing of credit risk regulations.
  • By 2019, thanks to banking reforms led by the State Bank of Vietnam, this issue had been effectively managed.
  • However, a more sophisticated form of cross-holdings has emerged in recent years, with more and more real estate developers becoming key decision-makers in local banks.
  • Real estate developers’ ownership in commercial banks exposes Vietnam to the same problems that China is facing, with poorly capitalised real estate companies borrowing heavily from banks via their complex network of affiliates, thereby exposing these banks as well as the whole banking system to great risks.
  • In order to deal with these risks, regulators need better tools to trace the ultimate ownership of commercial banks and mitigate ownership concentration. Requiring board diversity and enhancing the role of independent directors are some of the best practices that Vietnam can adopt.

* Tuan Ho is Senior Lecturer in Finance and Accounting at the University of Bristol and Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. Tuan Huu Nguyen is Head of Risk Management at Saigon Securities Corporation. Trang Thi Ngoc Nguyen is Associate Professor of Finance, and Tho Ngoc Tran is Professor of Finance at the University of Economics – Ho Chi Minh City.

ISEAS Perspective 2022/14, 17 February 2022

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INTRODUCTION

China’s economic stability has recently been threatened by the debt problem of major real estate developers, with Evergrande being the most notable case.[1] This has led to concerns that similar problems may happen to other countries in the region. In Vietnam, debates about this risk among policy makers and industry experts have intensified, as several real estate developers have recently emerged as major shareholders or key decision-makers in local banks.

This paper analyses the risks that this phenomenon poses to Vietnam’s banking system and discusses how Vietnam can handle this issue. We first review Vietnam’s banking reforms since 2011, focusing on the cross-holdings issue. We then link this to the risks posed by local real estate developers’ investment in banks, and discuss possible consequences. Finally, we recommend some policies and best practices that Vietnam can adopt to mitigate the risks.

WHY DO REAL ESTATE DEVELOPERS WANT TO CONTROL BANKS?

Reducing cross-holdings in commercial banks has been an important goal for Vietnamese policy makers since 2010. The fast growth of commercial banks in the 2000s was associated with the emergence of complicated ownership structures within these banks. Some banks held shares in other banks, while some were owned by non-financial companies, both private and state-owned, which were also these banks’ major clients. Such ownership structures were established through either direct or indirect links with these companies’ affiliates.[2]

In 2010, the State Bank of Vietnam (SBV), the country’s central bank, decided that cross-ownership among banks was a worrying trend as this practice encouraged non-compliance activities by financial institutions and major shareholders of commercial banks, including the bypassing of credit risk regulations. At the end of 2011, four state-owned commercial banks, namely Vietcombank, BIDV, VietinBank and Agribank, were holding shares in eight private-owned joint-stock commercial banks. For example, Vietcombank held an 11 per cent stake in Military Bank, an 8.2 per cent stake in Eximbank, a 4.7 per cent stake in Oriental Bank, and a 5.3 per cent stake in Saigon Bank. Private-owned commercial banks also held each other’s shares. For example, Eximbank owned 10.6 per cent of Sacombank and 8.5 per cent of Viet A Bank.[3]

After some deliberation, in 2014, the SBV issued Circular 36/2014/TT-NHNN to address this cross-holding problem.[4] The circular clarifies the definition of persons related to key decision-makers of commercial banks. It also requires additional disclosures on the ownership of related persons in commercial banks and the banks’ provision of credit to these persons. At the same time, the circular provides that a commercial bank can only hold less than 5 per cent of another financial institution’s equity. Thanks to these efforts, by June 2019, the number of pairs of financial institutions with cross-holding relationships had been reduced from 56 to only one.[5] Thereafter, SBV Governor Nguyen Thi Hong claimed that the issue of cross-holding in financial institutions had been “effectively handled”, and the problem of major shareholders manipulating banks had been managed.

However, while cross-ownership between banks may have virtually been eliminated, other types of complex ownership structures in the banking system have emerged. One particularly worrying trend is the participation of local real estate developers in banks; it is feared that this can adversely influence these banks’ lending practices.

Ownership structure reports issued by local banks suggest that most of them comply with regulations against cross-holdings issued by the SBV, such as the rules specified in Circular 36/2014/TT-NHNN. However, these regulations do not cover the issue of companies that are affiliates of bank shareholders holding shares in these banks. In most cases, such companies engage in different businesses, including capital-intensive ones such as real estate. These companies’ participation in banks is not driven by these banks’ profits, dividends, or stock price appreciation. Instead, the main benefit of their participation is the ability to influence these banks’ lending practices, including non-compliance activities such as providing excessive lending to certain clients. Essentially, real estate developers who can somehow control banks can channel more credits to their real estate projects by lending to these developers’ affiliates. They can even use employees as nominees to open companies to obtain loans from banks and then channel the money back to their businesses. It is hard to trace such transactions without thorough forensic audits, which are normally conducted only when major scandals break out.

Although it is difficult to trace these transactions and obtain definitive evidence, there are clear indications that some commercial banks are being controlled by real estate developers. For example, in May 2021, Tran Thi Thu Hang, CEO of Sunshine Group, a rising real estate developer with major projects in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, became chairwoman of Kienlongbank. In the same month, Nguyen Duc Thuy, founder and major shareholder of Thaiholdings, a conglomerate with diversified interests, including in real estate and renewable energy, was elected vice-chairman of LienVietPostBank after Thaiholdings, Thuy and his family members bought large amounts of the bank’s shares. As of December 2021, although Thaiholdings and Thuy’s relatives had putatively divested from LienVietPostBank, Thuy remained the bank’s vice chairman. In a more recent case, National Citizen Bank (NCB) appointed Bui Thi Thanh Huong, CEO of Sun Group, a major real estate developer well-known for large hospitality and entertainment complexes, as its chairwoman in July 2021. NCB is known to have made several loans to Sun Group, including for a major casino project in Van Don, Quang Ninh Province.

These developments reinforce a trend that has long existed in Vietnam’s banking industry, where local tycoons try to gain control of commercial banks as a way to provide cheap funding for their businesses, especially in the real estate sector. Notable examples of such a relationship between bank and real estate developers include Techcombank and Masterise Group, VPBank and MIK Group, SEABank and BRG Group, Saigon Commercial Bank and Van Thinh Phat Group, HDBank and Sovico Group, and Sacombank and Him Lam Group.[6]

INCREASING RISKS FROM REGULATORY ARBITRAGE

Against this backdrop, there have been concerns that real estate developers may distort the lending practices of these banks to benefit their other businesses. In March 2021, it was reported by local media that new forms of cross-holdings, i.e., real estate developers controlling banks, may be driven by regulatory arbitrage. According to the Law on Credit Institutions, the total loan a financial institution can lend to a single customer must not exceed 15 per cent of its capital, and the total outstanding loan to a customer and that customer’s related persons must not exceed 25 per cent of its capital. This balance includes bonds issued by companies of the customer to the lending institution.[7]

Since most real estate developers own multiple subsidiaries, they can circumvent the limits set out by this regulation by having these subsidiaries borrow from banks. In addition, these developers may also use affiliated businesses whose owners are putatively not related to them to borrow from the same banks. In such cases, banks can lend to these affiliated groups more than 25 per cent of their own capital without knowing that they have actually crossed the limit. While the risk management system of commercial banks can raise red flags over these transactions, bank managers, who are also real estate developers or who have close connections with them, may suppress such warnings. There have been similar cases in European banks, such as Credit Suisse in the Greensill Capital scandal, where risk managers’ warnings were ignored and suppressed by the bank’s executives.[8]

The SBV’s Circular 22/2019/TT-NHNN, which came into force on 1 January 2020, further incentivises real estate developers to acquire major stakes in commercial banks.[9] This circular aims to address banks’ maturity risk and slow down the credit flows to risky sectors, including real estate. Specifically, it requires that the ratio of short-term deposits to medium and long-term loans does not exceed 40 per cent for the period between 1 January 2020 and 30 September 2020. After this period, the ratio would go down further, to 37 per cent by October 2020 and eventually to 30 per cent by 2022. Additionally, loans to the real estate sector would carry a high-risk weight of 200 per cent, a significant increase from 150 per cent.[10] This change results in higher risk-weighted assets, and thus reduces banks’ capital adequacy ratio. In other words, if a bank maintains the same level of assets (including loans and investments) as before the increase of risk weights, it is considered to be subjecting itself to higher risks. Furthermore, if the bank’s capital adequacy ratio drops too low, it will need to raise capital to maintain the minimum ratio specified by the SBV. This regulation therefore limits the asset and credit growth of commercial banks that are not well capitalised.

Due to these new restrictions, the growth of credit to the real estate sector declined from 21 per cent in 2019 to 11.89 per cent in 2020.[11] Real estate developers now therefore have stronger motivations to become major shareholders in commercial banks to gain easier access to capital. The above-mentioned cases of cross-holdings between banks and real estate developers may only be the tip of the iceberg. There could have been other cases where real estate developers have major influence on commercial banks, but it is nearly impossible for the public and the media to trace the ultimate owners of these banks due to their complex and opaque cross-holding structures.

Some industry experts have warned about the risks associated with this new form of cross-holdings in the banking system, particularly amid disruptions to the real estate market caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, Le Xuan Nghia, former vice-chairman of the National Financial Supervisory Committee, emphasised that real estate companies serving as “backyards” of commercial banks need special attention from regulators.[12] He pointed out that several real estate developers have weak balance sheets, high debt-to-total asset ratio, and low liquidity ratio, and that their financial position “may be even worse than Evergrande’s”.[13] He also argued that the true picture is blurred by a thick “financial fog”[14] and the common practice of developers using nominees, such as their drivers, house-keepers and security guards, to set up affiliates to get bank loans on their behalf. He warned that if regulators failed to supervise carefully, cases like Evergrande would soon emerge in Vietnam.

Such concerns are well-founded and informed by past scandals in which banks’ ultimate owners channelled these banks’ money to their own pocket, causing heavy losses to the banks and putting the whole financial system at risk. One primary example is the case of Pham Cong Danh and the Vietnam Construction Bank (VNCB). As the former chairman of the bank, Danh has been prosecuted and jailed for “stealing money” from his bank and using the funds to secure loans from other lenders.[15] It is estimated that between 2012 and 2014, Danh caused VND9,000 billion (USD392 million) in losses to VNCB.

However, some others downplay the risk of real estate developers’ involvement in commercial banks. For example, Nguyen Tri Hieu, a banking expert, argues that the new owners of banks have changed their mindset. Given the stricter regulations imposed by the SBV, Hieu suggests without elaboration that the participation of real estate developers as well as companies from other industries in banks may actually be a good thing for the economy. Nevertheless, Hieu also admits that they need to learn from cases like VNCB and avoid repeating the same mistake.[16]

PROSPECTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

We concur that if leaders of real estate companies, who are also ultimate owners of certain banks, follow the rulebooks of the SBV, the situation will be under control. Vietnam’s current banking regulations have clearly indicated the limit that a bank can lend to a client, as well as to a client and its related parties. Furthermore, with the implementation of Basel 2 and Basel 3 standards in Vietnam, capital adequacy and internal controls have been enhanced at most banks. Market discipline may also deter bad governance behaviours, and cases like VNCB can thus be prevented.

However, while it is now harder for real estate tycoons to manipulate banks, there are still certain loopholes that they can take advantage of. Through the complex networks of subsidiaries and affiliated companies, these ultimate shareholders can channel credits to their own companies, bypassing regulations on credit and lending limits for the real estate sector. For example, they can interfere so that banks will lend to affiliates that are not directly involved in the real estate sector by building up shell companies in other industries to borrow from banks. At the end of the day, money will still be channelled to their real estate business through these shell companies.

With the rise of shadow banking, fintech app and retail lending arms, these wealth transfers can become too complicated to trace as shell companies can borrow from different arms of a commercial bank. It is therefore extremely hard for regulators to determine how much a bank is exposed to an ultimate borrower. It is also difficult for regulators to monitor which banks are exposed to cross-holdings by real estate developers and act before a problem becomes too big to tackle. Real estate developers can continue to come up with new ways to manipulate banks, and regulators are usually a few steps behind.

Even if only a few banks in the financial system have these governance loopholes, there is still a significant risk for over-indebted developers to emerge from the above-mentioned unhealthy practices. There are also concerns that banks’ operating performance may deteriorate if its leaders focus on lending to their “backyard companies”, while neglecting the banks’ main businesses. This will lead to the misallocation of banks’ resources and reduce the effectiveness of the banking system in providing capital for the economy. Furthermore, due to the wish to maintain these practices to benefit themselves, bank owners may not have the incentive to promote digitalisation of the banking system. Consequently, the competitiveness of Vietnamese banks may decline compared to foreign banks.

To avoid these risks, regulators need a better information system to trace the ultimate ownership of commercial banks and mitigate ownership concentration. Furthermore, requiring board diversity and enhancing the role of independent directors are best practices that Vietnam can adopt. When ownership is not concentrated into a few large shareholders and independent directors can challenge shady business practices, banks will be better governed and better prepared to deal with external shocks. There will also be lower chances for cases like Evergrande to emerge in Vietnam.


ENDNOTES

[1] Alexandra Stevenson and Cao Li, “Why China’s Economy Is Threatened by a Property Giant’s Debt Problems,” The New York Times, 10 November  2021, https://www.nytimes.com/article/evergrande-debt-crisis.html.

[2] Xuân Thành Nguyễn, “Commercial Banks of Vietnam: From Legal and Policy Changes in the Period 2006-2010 to Restructuring Events in the Period 2011-2015,” Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, February 2016.

[3]Văn Luyện Lê and Duy Tuấn Khuất, “Sở Hữu Chéo Giữa Các Ngân Hàng Thương Mại Việt Nam Sau Khi Ra Đời Thông Tư 36,” Tạp Chí Ngân Hàng, 2 October 2017, http://tapchinganhang.gov.vn/so-huu-cheo-giua-cac-ngan-hang-thuong-mai-viet-nam-sau-khi-ra-doi-thong-tu-36.htm.

[4] The circular can be accessed at https://vanban.chinhphu.vn/default.aspx?pageid=27160&docid=178433

[5] Đình Vũ, “Thống Đốc Nguyễn Thị Hồng: Hệ Thống Ngân Hàng Không Còn Tình Trạng Sở Hữu Chéo,” Nhà Đầu Tư, 28 January 2021, https://nhadautu.vn/thong-doc-nguyen-thi-hong-he-thong-ngan-hang-khong-con-tinh-trang-so-huu-cheo-d47956.html. The only remaining case is between Asia Commercial Bank (ACB) and Real Estate Investment Hòa Phát – Á Châu (ACB holds 2.86 per cent of Hòa Phát – Á Châu while that company owns 0.046 per cent of ACB). It remains unclear why this case was not resolved.

[6] Khanh An, “Khi đại gia Việt ‘cưới’ ngân hàng”, Nhà Đầu tư, 30 July 2021, https://nhadautu.vn/khi-dai-gia-viet-cuoi-ngan-hang-d55714.html

[7] Hà Tâm, “Bóng Dáng Sở Hữu Chéo Trong Hệ Thống Ngân Hàng,” Đầu Tư Online, 3 March 2021, https://baodautu.vn/bong-dang-so-huu-cheo-trong-he-thong-ngan-hang-d138940.html.

[8] Marion Halftermeyer, “Credit Suisse Overruled Risk Managers on Greensill Loan”, Bloomberg, 11 March 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-11/credit-suisse-overruled-risk-managers-on-loan-to-greensill.

[9] Circular 22/2019 is available at: http://congbao.chinhphu.vn/noi-dung-van-ban-so-22-2019-tt-nhnn-30003?cbid=28657

[10] Kiều Linh, “‘Nắn’ Dòng Vốn Vào Bất Động Sản,” VnEconomy, 23 November 2020, https://vneconomy.vn/nan-dong-von-vao-bat-dong-san-646111.htm.

[11] Minh Phương, “Ngân Hàng Nhà Nước Nói Gì về Tín Dụng Rót Vào Bất Động Sản, Chứng Khoán?,” Báo Tin Tức, 21 June 2021, https://baotintuc.vn/thi-truong-tien-te/ngan-hang-nha-nuoc-noi-gi-ve-tin-dung-rot-vao-bat-dong-san-chung-khoan-20210621151937032.htm.

[12] “Backyards” or “backyard companies” are terms commonly used in Vietnam to refer to companies that are related to key decision-makers of a business or a government official, normally without the knowledge of the public.

[13] Đào Vũ, “Hồi Chuông Cảnh Báo Từ ‘Bom Nợ’ Evergrande,” VnEconomy, October 2021, https://vneconomy.vn/hoi-chuong-canh-bao-tu-bom-no-evergrande.htm.

[14] “Financial fog” or “sương mù tài chính” is a term coined by Le Xuan Nghia in his interview with VnEconomy to describe the lack of transparency in banks’ asset quality. Several troubled loans were not classified as bad debts thanks to SBV’s current regulations which are designed to support commercial banks and their customers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

[“15] Hai Duyen, “Vietnamese Banks Protest after Prosecutors Call for $266 Million to Be Returned at Fraud Trial,” VnExpress International, 26 January 2018, https://e.vnexpress.net/news/business/vietnamese-banks-protest-after-prosecutors-call-for-266-million-to-be-returned-at-fraud-trial-3704021.html.

[16] Nhuệ Mẫn, “Chuyện đại gia bất động sản góp vốn tại ngân hàng”, Đầu tư chứng khoán, 13 August 2021, https://tinnhanhchungkhoan.vn/chuyen-dai-gia-bat-dong-san-gop-von-tai-ngan-hang-post276622.html

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2022/4 “Vietnam’s Labour Reforms: Drivers and Implications” by Joe Buckley

 

This photograph taken on 21 September 2021 shows workers wearing face masks while working at the factory which makes activewear for various textile clothing brands in Hanoi. Photo: Nhac NGUYEN, AFP.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  • Vietnam has a single state-led union federation, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL). However, the 2019 Labour Code legalised worker organisations (WOs) not affiliated to the VGCL. This is the first time the country has allowed any formal freedom of association.
  • WOs are enterprise-level organisations only. They are not unions and are more limited in what they can do compared to unions.
  • The reforms resulted from both external pressure from above, in the form of trade agreements with labour rights requirements, and internal pressure from below, in the form of workers’ self-organised strikes.
  • The reforms may help the Vietnamese government reduce the number of strikes and labour militancy. They may also pressure the VGCL to become more representative of workers.
  • However, it is unlikely that WOs, on their own, will become a significant force in Vietnamese society.

* Guest writer, Joe Buckley, is a researcher and consultant specialising in Southeast Asian labour politics, especially Vietnam.

ISEAS Perspective 2022/4, 19 January 2022

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INTRODUCTION

Vietnam is a one-party state with a single, state-led union federation, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL). The Confederation is part of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, a group of state-affiliated mass organisations, and independent trade unions not affiliated to the VGCL are banned. The VGCL operates in the mode of a dual functioning union; a doctrine developed at the 10th Congress of the Russian Communist Party in 1921 in which the role of trade unions in post-revolutionary societies is to both encourage productivity and economic growth, and protect workers from harsh treatment.[1] The doctrine is reflected in the VGCL’s contemporary charter, which defines its functions as to protect workers’ rights and interests, propagate party directions, help increase productivity and development, and take part in economic and social management.[2]

The Confederation has been heavily criticised for not representing workers properly. At the enterprise level, it is dominated by employers, with trade union representatives often being the human resource managers of the companies who normally do not stand up for workers vis-à-vis employers. Furthermore, as a state-led union, at the national level, the VGCL is subordinate to the government and the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam, so it is unable to struggle for workers’ interests independently.[3] This does not mean, however, that the VGCL is useless. In national-level policy debates, for example, it tends to take a more pro-labour position than the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA).[4]

Over the past 15 years or so, Vietnam has seen significant numbers of wildcat strikes, self-organised by workers and not led by the VGCL.[5] These peaked in 2011, when there were around 1,000 recorded strikes, and have been gradually declining since then. They have reached relatively low levels over the past couple of years, with 121 strikes recorded in 2019 and 126 in 2020, according to VGCL’s data.[6]

In November 2019, Vietnam’s National Assembly passed a new Labour Code, which came into effect on 1 January 2021.[7] The new law contained several important changes, including protecting workers without contracts, definitions of discrimination and harassment, and clearer regulations on forced and child labour.[8] Perhaps the most significant and the most discussed change was Chapter XIII of the law. This allows, for the first time, a form of freedom of association, in which workers are permitted to form organisations not affiliated to VGCL.

This research paper provides an overview and analysis of the freedom of association reforms. First of all, it clarifies what the legislation does and does not allow, given that this has been widely misreported. It then explores the drivers of the reforms, before looking at the potential implications of the changes.

THE FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION REFORMS

The most important thing to note is that, contrary to what has been widely reported,[9] Vietnam has not legalised independent trade unions at all. The VGCL remains the only legal trade union federation. Independent unions are still illegal. Rather, the 2019 Labour Code creates a new category of “enterprise-level worker organisation” (tổ chức của người lao động tại doanh nghiệp, WO).[10] There are now three different legal concepts of relevance here:

Type of organisationDefinition
Trade union (công đoàn)Organisations that are part of the VGCL, legislated by the Trade Union Law.
Enterprise-level worker organisations (tổ chức của người lao động tại doanh nghiệp, WOs)Worker organisations not affiliated to the VGCL, legislated by Chapter XIII of the 2019 Labour Code.
Grassroots worker representative organisations (tổ chức đại diện người lao động tại cơ sở, WROs)A term that encompasses both enterprise-level trade unions and enterprise-level worker organisations.

According to the 2019 Labour Code, workers have the right to establish and join both unions and WOs. The Trade Union Law,[11] which regulates unions, and Chapter XIII of the Labour Code, which regulates WOs, grant some of the same protections to both types of WROs. For example, both laws ban employers from discriminating against members of either type of organisation; both give representatives from each organisation the right to engage in enterprise-level collective bargaining and dialogue with employers; both can organise and lead strikes provided they follow the correct (lengthy and bureaucratic) legal procedures; and both can receive support from other registered organisations and agencies within Vietnam.

There are, though, some important differences between the two types of WROs, which put WOs at a disadvantage compared to trade unions. For example, unions can engage in political and policy discussions at every level of the state and government, while enterprise-level WOs cannot do so beyond the enterprise level. Furthermore, there is no legislation giving WOs the right to form regional or sectoral federations beyond the enterprise level; in contrast, the VGCL has a very clear organisational structure, from the national confederation level down. Articles 172 and 174 of Chapter XIII of the Labour Code both make a passing reference to WOs being able to “link” (liên kết), but this is not expanded or elaborated upon. Finally, the state has certain responsibilities towards the VGCL and can give them financial support for projects. This is not the case for WOs. In addition, outside of the strictly legal procedures, figures in government also frequently stress their support for unions over WOs.[12]

In addition to this, there is another major issue with regard to forming WOs; they cannot be established in practice, at least for now. The Labour Code does not detail the basic administrative procedures required for creating and registering WOs, such as which documents need filling out and which government office these documents need to be submitted to. Rather, the law says that these procedures will be further regulated by the government. A decree that would explain and legislate such procedures was expected to be enacted in 2020 but that has not been released as of December 2021.[13] Consequently, workers who want to establish a formal WO in their enterprise cannot yet do so.

WHERE DID THE REFORMS COME FROM?

When explaining where these freedom of association reforms have come from, the most obvious and most reported driver has been the requirements of international trade agreements, or what I call external pressure from above. Two major trade deals to which Vietnam is a party, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA), both contain labour provisions committing signatories to ratify and implement the eight core conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The ILO is the UN agency responsible for labour, whose members include governments, employers, and unions. They have many conventions on various aspects of labour rights, which states are invited and encouraged to join. Eight of these are seen as fundamental to the basic ability for trade unions to exist and function.[14] Vietnam had already ratified six of the eight—on topics such as forced labour, child labour, equal remuneration, and discrimination—but the two that they had not ratified are the two related to freedom of association: Convention No. 98 and Convention No. 87.

Convention No. 98 is known as the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention.[15] It protects workers’ and employers’ organisations from interfering with each other. In the Vietnamese context, this should mean ending the practice of enterprise-level union representatives being human resource managers or someone similar. Vietnam ratified Convention No. 98 in summer 2019 (it came into effect a year later), but there has been no published research into what impact, if any, this has had in practice. Convention No. 87 is known as the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention,[16] allowing workers to form and join organisations of their own choice without prior authorisation. Vietnam has said it will ratify this convention by 2023. The freedom of association reforms introduced in the 2019 Labour Code created the legal framework allowing Vietnam to comply with the convention.

The argument from those who stress the external pressure from above as the driver of reforms is that Vietnam made the freedom of association reforms in order to comply with the requirements of the trade agreements to which it wanted to be a party.[17] The implication is that without external pressure from above, there would not have been such reforms. Undoubtedly, this is a large and important part of the explanation. In my view, however, focusing entirely on trade agreements misses a critical factor: internal pressure from below.

This is pressure created by workers’ self-organised militancy, mentioned in the introduction to this paper. From the mid-2000s until the late 2010s, there were hundreds of recorded strikes every year, largely in industrial export manufacturing, primarily demanding things such as higher wages (or wages that the employer had not paid) and better treatment at workplaces. Every strike was organised by workers themselves without the union; the VGCL has never led a strike. Strike numbers peaked in 2011, when nearly 1,000 were recorded.[18] Over the past decade, Vietnamese authorities, including the VGCL and MOLISA, have been attempting a number of reforms to reduce the number of strikes, and create “harmonious labour relations” (quan hệ lao động hài hoà). These include better legal representation for workers in disputes,[19] collective bargaining experiments,[20] and the creation of a National Wage Council to negotiate annual wage rises.[21] While strike numbers have fallen significantly from the 2011 high point, reducing them further has remained a major concern of the Vietnamese authorities. The freedom of association reforms in the 2019 Labour Code can be seen as a further step in that direction.

In sum, the reforms have been driven by pressure from two directions: internal pressure from below (worker militancy) and external pressure from above (requirements of trade agreements). Allowing the establishment of independent WOs as stipulated in the 2019 Labour Code is one of the key outcomes of these reforms. The next section will discuss implications of this important change for Vietnam’s labour context going forward.

WHAT DO THE REFORMS MEAN FOR THE FUTURE?

The implications of the reforms currently remain unclear given that WOs do not and cannot yet exist in practice. However, three preliminary observations and predictions can be made. First, as I have argued elsewhere[22] and above, the reforms are the latest in a number of efforts to reduce the number of strikes and labour militancy. It may be working; strike numbers have been falling and these recently reached especially low levels, hovering at just above 120 for the past couple of years. WOs, once established in practice, may further contribute to the trend of declining numbers of strikes, as workers’ grievances and disputes become channelled through institutional mechanisms of dispute resolution rather than self-organised activism. There is no guarantee that this would be positive for labour. Strikes have brought significant gains for workers, in terms of both immediate demands and national level policy reforms.[23] There is no certainty that WOs will be able to do the same; indeed, weak WOs may not be able to do much at all, resulting in a net loss for working-class power.

The second implication is more positive. The existence of independent WOs as competitors of trade unions could create pressure for the VGCL to become more representative of workers. For example, the vice president of the provincial VGCL labour federation in Nghệ An, a province in North Central Vietnam, said this explicitly in an opinion piece published in the newspaper of the provincial Communist Party. In the article, she says that the arrival of WOs presents competing organisations for the trade union, meaning it will need to be good at establishing unions, undertaking collective bargaining, and leading and organising strikes.[24] The last point is especially notable as the VGCL has never organised a strike. More broadly, in response to the recent trend of export manufacturing employers in southern Vietnam facing difficulties in retaining or recruiting workers—a result of domestic migrant workers abandoning urban areas and returning to their hometowns because of COVID-19[25]—the VGCL developed a plan to motivate workers to stay in or return to their jobs. A core part of this involved encouraging VGCL offices at various levels to negotiate with employers to improve wages, benefits and conditions.[26] While it is hard to confirm that the WO legislation had any direct impact on this response, it is a clear demonstration of how the VGCL is trying to bring more benefits to workers, in the new context of greater official freedom of association and potential competition from WOs.

Finally, it is unlikely that WOs, on their own, will directly become a significant force for change in Vietnamese society. As noted earlier, currently, WOs have not officially existed, since regulations and instructions on how to register one have not yet been promulgated. Furthermore, once they do come into existence, the law places strict limits on what they can and cannot do, meaning that unless the government is willing to allow further changes, WOs will be unable to engage in national-level policy discussions or form regional and sectoral federations. Another major problem is that many workers have not even heard of WOs.[27]

Given these reasons, it is difficult to see how the organisations themselves could become a vanguard for change, at least in the short to medium term. More interesting to observe, however, will be how their introduction, on paper and soon in practice, may affect the two major forces in Vietnam’s labour politics, namely the state-led VGCL and workers’ self-organised strikes.


ENDNOTES

[1] Alex Pravda and Blair A. Ruble, “Communist Trade Unions: Varieties of Dualism”, in Alex Pravda and Blair A. Ruble (Eds), Trade Unions in Communist States (Boston; London; Sydney: Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1986), pp. 1-21: 2.

[2] VGCL, Điều lệ Công đoàn Việt Nam (Đại hội công đoàn lần thứ XII thông qua ngày 24 tháng 9 năm 2018) [Vietnamese Trade Union Charter (adopted at the XII union congress on 24 September 2018)], http://www.congdoan.vn/FileManager/Files/nguyenthingoctu/files/DIEU%20LE%20%20CDVN%20khoa%20XII%20(b%E1%BA%A3n%20ch%C3%ADnh).pdf

[3] Do Quynh Chi and Di van Den Broek, “Wildcat strikes: A catalyst for union reform in Vietnam?”, Journal of Industrial Relations 55, no. 5 (2013), pp. 783-799.

[4] Joe Buckley, Vietnamese Labour Militancy: Capital-labour antagonisms and self-organised struggles (London; New York: Routledge, 2022): 26.

[5] Kaxton Siu and Anita Chan, ‘Strike Wave in Vietnam, 2006–2011’, Journal of Contemporary Asia 45, no. 1 (2015), pp. 71–91.

[6] “Số cuộc ngừng việc tập thể giảm gần 50% [Collective work stoppages reduced by nearly 50%]”, Lao Động [online], 7 January 2020, https://laodong.vn/cong-doan/so-cuoc-ngung-viec-tap-the-giam-gan-50-776934.ldo; Hoàng Mạnh, “126 cuộc ngừng việc tập thể trong năm 2020 [126 collective work stoppages in 2020]”, Dân Trí, 9 January 2020, https://dantri.com.vn/lao-dong-viec-lam/126-cuoc-ngung-viec-tap-the-trong-nam-2020-20210109093951160.htm

[7] National Assembly, Bộ luật Lao động 2019 [2019 Labour Code], 2019, https://thuvienphapluat.vn/van-ban/Lao-dong-Tien-luong/Bo-Luat-lao-dong-2019-333670.aspx.

[8] ILO, ‘Revised Vietnamese Labour Code to help everyone gain fair shares of economic growth’, ILO, 20 November 2019, https://www.ilo.org/hanoi/Informationresources/Publicinformation/Pressreleases/WCMS_729339/lang–en/index.htm

[9] Eric San Juan, “Is there a glimmer of hope for Vietnamese workers?”, Equal Times, 18 February 2020, https://www.equaltimes.org/is-there-a-glimmer-of-hope#.YawsQ_FBy3I

[10] National Assembly, Bộ luật Lao động 2019 [2019 Labour Code], 2019, https://thuvienphapluat.vn/van-ban/Lao-dong-Tien-luong/Bo-Luat-lao-dong-2019-333670.aspx

[11] National Assembly, Luật Công đoàn [Trade Union Law], 2012, https://vanban.chinhphu.vn/portal/page/portal/chinhphu/hethongvanban. For recent revisions to this law, see: National Assembly, Luật sửa dổi, bổ sung một số điều của luật công đoàn, dự thảo 2 [Law amending and adding to a number of article of the trade union law, second draft], 2021, https://thuvienphapluat.vn/van-ban/Doanh-nghiep/Luat-Cong-doan-sua-doi-445264.aspx

[12] See, for example, “Kỷ niệm Ngày thành lập Công đoàn Việt Nam: Vinh quang 90 năm đồng hành cùng đất nước [Anniversary of the founding of the Vietnamese Trade Union: A glorious 90 years accompanying the country]”, Lao động, 28 July 2019, https://laodong.vn/cong-doan/ky-niem-ngay-thanh-lap-cong-doan-viet-nam-vinh-quang-90-nam-dong-hanh-cung-dat-nuoc-746568.ldo

[13] T.K. Tran, “Ngoài Công đoàn, VN cần cho các tổ chức khác hoạt động vì người lao động [Besides the union, Vietnam needs other organisations for workers]”, BBC Vietnamese, 30 October 2021, https://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/forum-59089257

[14] Kari Tapiola, The Teeth of the ILO: The impact of the 1998 ILO declaration on fundamental principles and rights at work (Geneva: ILO, 2018).

[15] ILO, C098 – Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98), 1949, https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_ILO_CODE:C098.

[16] ILO, C087 – Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87), 1948, https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_ILO_CODE:C087.

[17] Pham Trong Nghia, Trade and Labour Rights: The Case of the TPP, University of Oxford Global Economic Governance Programme Working Paper 124, 2017, https://www.geg.ox.ac.uk/sites/geg.bsg.ox.ac.uk/files/GEG%20WP%20124%20-%20Trade%20%26%20Labour%20Rights%20%20The%20Case%20of%20the%20TPP%20-%20Nghia%20Trong%20Pham_0.pdf; Angie N Tran, Jennifer Bair, Marion Werner, “Forcing Change from the Outside? The Role of Trade–labour Linkages in Transforming Vietnam’s Labour Regime”, Competition & Change 21, no. 5 (2017), pp. 397–416.

[18] For in-depth studies of strikes and other forms of Vietnamese labour activism, see: Benedict J. T. Kerkvliet, Speaking Out in Vietnam: Public Political Criticism in a Communist Party-Ruled Nation (Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2019); Angie Ngoc Tran, Ties That Bind: Cultural Identity, Class, and Law in Vietnam’s Labor Resistance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013); Joe Buckley, Vietnamese Labour Militancy: Capital-labour antagonisms and self-organised struggles (London; New York: Routledge, 2022).

[19] Tu Phuong Nguyen, Workplace Justice: Rights and Labour Resistance in Vietnam (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).

[20] Katie Quan, “One Step Forward: Collective Bargaining Experiments in Vietnam and China”, in A. Chan (ed), Chinese Workers in Comparative Perspective (Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2015), pp. 174-192.

[21] ILO, “National wage council launched, giving employers and workers a voice in minimum wage setting”, ILO, 3 August 2013, https://www.ilo.org/hanoi/Informationresources/Publicinformation/WCMS_218763/lang–en/index.htm.

[22] Joe Buckley, “Freedom of Association in Vietnam: A Heretical View”, Global Labour Journal 12, no. 2 (2021), pp. 79-94.

[23] For some examples, see Buckley, “Freedom of Association in Vietnam”.

[24] Nguyen Thi Thu Nhi, “Phát huy vai trò của tổ chức công đoàn Nghệ An trong giai đoạn mới’ [Upholding the role of Nghe An trade unions in the new period]”, Báo Nghệ An, 28 July 2021, https://baonghean.vn/phat-huy-vai-tro-cua-to-chuc-cong-doan-nghe-an-trong-giai-doan-moi-291346.html.

[25] Lien Hoang, “Labor paradox leaves Vietnam factories reeling after COVID exodus”, Nikkei Asia, 20 October 2021, https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Companies/Labor-paradox-leaves-Vietnam-factories-reeling-after-COVID-exodus.

[26] Hà Anh, “Giải pháp để người lao động không về quê tự phát’ [Solutions to stop workers spontaneously returning to their hometowns]”, Lao động, 7 October 2021, https://laodong.vn/cong-doan/giai-phap-de-nguoi-lao-dong-khong-ve-que-tu-phat-961286.ldo.

[27] Michael Tatarski, “Vietnamese workers still in the dark about potential of new representative organisations”, China Labour Bulletin, 21 January 2021, https://clb.org.hk/content/vietnamese-workers-still-dark-about-potential-new-representative-organisations.

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2021/166 ““Adapting to Nature”: A Preliminary Assessment of Vietnam’s Mekong Water Diplomacy since 2017” by Truong-Minh Vu and Tram Nguyen

 

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc addresses counterparts at the Mekong – Japan Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), on a live video conference held online due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, in Hanoi on 13 November 2020. Photo: Nhac NGUYEN, AFP.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  • Adopted in November 2017, the Vietnamese Government’s Resolution 120 on “Climate Resilience and Sustainable Development of the Mekong Delta Region” has provided a long-term strategic vision and outlined the direction for Vietnam’s water diplomacy to address problems threatening its Mekong Delta.
  • After four years of implementing the Resolution, Vietnam has achieved some positive outcomes in gaining international recognition and support towards the sustainable development of the Delta.
  • However, the reluctance of some ASEAN maritime states in engaging with Mekong issues, as well as the differences among Mekong countries and the major powers involved in the sub-region regarding how to address these issues, continue to hamper the realization of the Resolution’s goals.
  • A reasonable way to tackle these issues could be the adoption of a win-win approach that goes beyond water issues, in order to facilitate the achievement of key priorities pursued by the individual parties involved.

* Truong-Minh Vu is a lecturer at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities – Ho Chi Minh City. He has also been a senior fellow of The Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) since 2018. Tram Nguyen is a lecturer at the School of Business, International University, Vietnam National University – HCMC.

ISEAS Perspective 2021/166, 17 December 2021

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INTRODUCTION

The Mekong Delta is Vietnam’s most fertile region, accounting for much of the country’s rice, aquatic and fruit export. However, in recent years, climate change and extreme weather events, including floods, droughts, and saltwater intrusion, have been affecting the livelihood and food security of 17 million people living in the Delta, as well as the whole region’s ecological system. The construction of upstream hydropower infrastructure and intense economic activities in the region have also contributed to the degradation of water quality and change in water flow and alluvial soil.

Acknowledging the need for a long-term strategic vision and for international cooperation to address the problems threatening the Mekong Delta region (MDR), on 17 November 2017, the Vietnamese government issued Resolution 120/NQ-CP on “Climate Resilience and Sustainable Development of the Mekong Delta Region” (hereafter “Resolution 120”), also known as the “Thuan Thien” (Adapting to Nature) Resolution.[1] Resolution 120 emphasizes the need to put humans at the centre of development and adopts the sustainable and economical use of natural resources as the key development principle. The document also calls for regional and bilateral cooperation towards effective and sustainable use of water and other resources in the Mekong River Basin, based on mutual benefits.

Resolution 120 outlines three activities for Vietnam’s Mekong water diplomacy: (i) coordinating bilateral and multilateral cooperation with Mekong upstream countries, as well as major river basins and deltas in the world; (ii) promoting Vietnam’s active participation in the Mekong River Commission (MRC), existing cooperative mechanisms of Mekong River Basin countries, and cooperative mechanisms between Mekong River Basin countries and development partners; and (iii) developing strategic partnerships with other countries and international development partners to mobilize external resources (funding, knowledge, and technology) towards addressing climate change and promoting sustainable development in the MDR. The National Committee on Climate Change, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are tasked with implementing these goals. This paper provides a preliminary assessment of Vietnam’s Mekong water diplomacy since the adoption of Resolution 120.

VIETNAM’S MEKONG WATER DIPLOMACY SINCE THE ADOPTION OF RESOLUTION 120

Involvement in Bilateral Cooperation and Intra-regional Mechanisms with Upstream Countries

Vietnam has consistently contributed to the success of Mekong regional cooperative mechanisms by actively proposing and implementing initiatives, getting involved in drafting key documents, and allocating resources to support joint projects. In March 2018, Vietnam hosted the 10th Cambodia–Laos–Vietnam Summit on Development Triangle Area and the 6th Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Summit, along with its sideline event, the GMS Business Summit.[2] Following the completion of the MRC’s Study on Sustainable Management and Development of the Mekong River, including the Impact of the Hydropower Development Projects (also known as the Council Study) in 2017, meetings were held among the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Vietnam National Mekong Committee, and representatives from key NGOs, development partners, academia and civil society. These meetings resulted in the development of several Council Study national uptake action plans.[3] Vietnam also participated in the implementation of the MRC’s Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement procedure by organizing national consultation activities for Laos’ Pak Lay hydropower project.

In 2020, the State Audit Office of Vietnam proposed an environmental audit on water management in the Mekong River Basin. Started in March 2021, the audit assessed the fulfilment of UN sustainable development goals concerning the use, management and protection of water resources in the Mekong River Basin. Two upper-stream countries – Myanmar and Thailand – agreed to participate in this initiative.[4] On data sharing, in November 2018, the Vietnam National Space Center signed a memorandum of understanding with the MRC on using satellite data from the Vietnam Data Cube system in monitoring and assessing water and other resources in the Mekong River Basin.[5]

At meetings organized under intra-regional cooperative mechanisms, Vietnamese officials highlighted the critical situation of the Mekong Delta and urged member countries to cooperate in water resource management and promote sustainable development in the region. For example, at the 3rd MRC Summit in 2018, then-Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc raised the water security problems in the Mekong region and called for the effective implementation of MRC regulations, cooperative mechanisms for water resource management, and transparent data sharing among Mekong countries. At the 2019 Ministerial Meeting of Lancang–Mekong Water Resources Cooperation, then-Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Le Cong Thanh reiterated these points and called for the effective implementation of the Five-year Action Plan on Lancang–Mekong Water Resources Cooperation (2018-2022). Environmental degradation was once again underscored as one of the urgent issues for the Mekong–Lancang Cooperation (MLC) countries at the 6th MLC Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in June 2021. Addressing the meeting, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son advocated for data sharing, joint efforts in water resource management, and greater coordination with other cooperative mechanisms.

Vietnam’s active participation in these mechanisms shows that it considers not only national interests but also the region’s sustainable development prospects. This approach is faithful to a core principle of water diplomacy, i.e. water diplomacy is more than just water resource management, but also a means to achieve the broader long-term objective of improving regional security, stability, and prosperity.[6] Nevertheless, the outcomes of Vietnam’s water diplomacy so far have been mixed. This can be attributed to the nature of intra-regional cooperation in the Mekong region. Except for the MRC, all existing intra-regional cooperative mechanisms are non-binding policy consultation platforms.[7] Most of the meetings under these mechanisms can be classified as action-orientated conferences, which focus mainly on building basic principles and guidelines for interaction and collective action, rather than formulating legal norms. [8] Additionally, comprised of mostly ASEAN countries, they reflect ASEAN’s diplomacy features, including lenient management, consensus-based decision-making, and prioritization of maintaining dialogue over conflict settlement. [9] As meetings often conclude with an agreement on statements of intent rather than a legal framework, implementation deficits can easily arise. [10]

Involvement in Inter-regional Cooperation

Due to its economic potential and geopolitical significance, the Mekong sub-region has attracted the attention of global powers, including the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia and India, all with their mechanisms[11] to engage with the riparian countries.[12] As Hanoi welcomes a multilateral approach to water resource management and sustainable development in the Mekong, it has actively participated in these mechanisms. In November 2020, Vietnam co-chaired the 10th Mekong–Republic of Korea Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and the 12th Mekong–Japan Summit Meeting. In January 2021, Vietnam and the United States co-hosted the first Friends of the Mekong Policy Dialogue under the Mekong-US Partnership.

One central challenge to the Mekong sub-region lies in balancing the developmental and geopolitical interests of multiple internal and external actors. While Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar have relied on China for hydropower infrastructure development, Vietnam has tried to avoid technological dependence on its northern neighbor and resisted China’s infrastructural hegemony in the region.[13] Inter-regional cooperative mechanisms led by the great powers not only open new windows of opportunity for downstream Mekong countries to address water-related concerns but could also transform the regional order. By boosting ties with external actors and assuming a leading role in inter-regional mechanisms, Vietnam is gradually increasing its diplomatic clout in the sub-region.

Within ASEAN, Vietnam is looking for a common position on the issue of water security in the Mekong basin. As the 2020 Chair of ASEAN, Vietnam hosted the “ASEAN Forum on Sub-regional Development: Converging Mekong Sub-regional Cooperation with ASEAN Goals” in September 2020. The forum discussed the importance of sub-regional cooperation in enhancing ASEAN connectivity and economic links, the challenges to sub-regional cooperation, and the role of development partners.[14] Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister and Chair of the forum, Nguyen Quoc Dung, emphasized the strategic role of a prosperous, peaceful and sustainable Mekong sub-region to ASEAN’s regional position and the future of the ASEAN community. In the joint communiqué of the meeting, ASEAN countries agreed to promote sub-regional cooperation frameworks, including those in the Mekong region, and align sub-regional development with the comprehensive development of ASEAN.[15]

Vietnam’s attempt to get ASEAN involved in the Mekong has met with mixed responses from other members. Maritime ASEAN states have not shown much enthusiasm for Hanoi’s proposal as they think that the Mekong issues should be addressed through sub-regional frameworks.[16] However, it is too early to evaluate Vietnam’s efforts. The 2020 ASEAN Forum on Sub-regional Development is the first of its kind, and so far, the only time that the ASEAN Coordinating Council has tabled this issue in a separate session.[17] Additionally, sub-regional issues might be viewed as having less urgency than the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been the primary concern of all countries and a key point of discussion in ASEAN meetings.[18]

Strengthening Strategic Partnerships with Development Partners

As of 2021, Vietnam has engaged more than 20 development partners in the implementation of Resolution 120. These development partners, with diverse experiences, expertise and resources, have committed to lend Vietnam a total of US$2.2 billion to facilitate the implementation of the Resolution.[19]

The World Bank is one of Vietnam’s most active and largest partners. The organization has engaged in cross-cutting collaboration with Vietnam in three major fields of governance: environmental sustainability, inclusive economic growth, and human resource and knowledge development.[20] Most World Bank projects are funded through its Investment Project Financing instrument, which provides the MDR with not only the necessary budget but also knowledge transfer and technical assistance for the long-term success of project implementation and institutionalization.[21] The Vietnamese Ministry of Planning and Investment has also been working with the World Bank on a future budget support programme of US$1.05 billion to improve infrastructure, prevent droughts and saltwater intrusions, and adapt to climate change in the MDR.

Another long-term partner of the MDR is the Netherlands. Resolution 120 specifically mentions the diplomatic task of expanding and strengthening the Strategic Partnership with the Netherlands on climate change adaptation and water management, which was established in 2010. Both countries have also affirmed that sustainable agriculture and food security remain the key pillars in the Vietnam–Netherlands Comprehensive Partnership.[22] The Dutch Fund for Climate and Development, with a budget of EUR160 million (US$185 million), also committed to fund businesses seeking to support climate-resilient ecosystem and community in the Mekong Delta.

Additionally, the United States, France, Germany, Japan, Australia and the European Union have also expressed their appreciation for and commitment to the implementation of Resolution 120.[23] These diplomatic endorsements show that Vietnam has successfully expanded and strengthened strategic collaboration with development partners to mobilize resources for the MDR. International support in terms of knowledge sharing, technology transfer, and investment is crucial to Vietnam’s proactive adaptation to nature and to its bid to turn challenges of climate change into opportunities.

THE WAY FORWARD FOR VIETNAM’S MEKONG WATER DIPLOMACY

After four years of implementing Resolution 120, Vietnam’s water diplomacy has yielded positive outcomes. Through its active participation in bilateral and multilateral mechanisms, Vietnam has shed light on the pressing water security issues facing the MDR. Proactive engagement with various stakeholders within and outside the Mekong sub-region has earned Vietnam international support in the form of knowledge sharing, technology cooperation, and investment. Similar to the South China Sea dispute, Vietnam seeks to internationalize and multilateralize the Mekong issue. Particularly, Hanoi has taken some initial steps to generate greater international awareness of transboundary water management problems in the Mekong River Basin, starting with raising the topic in ASEAN meetings. Moving forward, Vietnam should continue to advocate for the inclusion of key sub-regional matters in the broader regional agenda.

By delivering clear and consistent messages on problems facing the MDR and the effective management of the Mekong River Basin’s resources to a broader foreign audience, Vietnam can further garner international attention and support in realizing Resolution 120’s development goals while enhancing the country’s diplomatic credentials in sub-regional mechanisms. With the involvement of external actors in the Mekong region, discussions on China’s control of the upstream Mekong through hydropower dams will gain momentum. One of the tasks for the next five years is to enhance Vietnam’s presence in the MLC and encourage China to be transparent and responsive about sharing water-related data, especially information about the planning and operation of its hydropower dams, as well as how water is discharged downstream.[24] Additional attention from the international community might induce greater cooperation from China, and thus make this task more achievable.

Another challenge ahead for Vietnam is to harmonize its interests with those of the upper-stream countries. Transboundary water management in the Mekong River Basin is a complex issue as each country follows a different development path and has divergent interests in the Mekong River. For example, Laos and Cambodia aim to harness the Mekong’s hydropower potential for energy generation.[25] However, Vietnam, as the most downstream country, is concerned about the negative impacts of upstream hydropower dams on the survival of the MDR and has therefore advocated for the effective and sustainable management of transboundary water in the region.

To address this challenge, firstly, Vietnam needs to cooperate with other Mekong countries in conducting joint studies and generating scientific analyses and assessments of the situation of the Mekong River Basin. Vietnam should also continue to promote information sharing and data transparency. These measures would produce agreed-upon scientific knowledge and shared understanding between parties, resulting in a more collaborative decision-making process and more trustful relationships. Second, Vietnam should propose mutually beneficial options that allow one side to achieve their most important priorities, while satisfying the other side’s top interests.[26] This approach requires Vietnam and its partners to look beyond the surface to understand the underlying drivers of Mekong countries’ water policies. Consequently, the possibilities for effective transboundary water management may lie in other economic sectors, such as agriculture and energy production, and water negotiations should therefore not be viewed as a zero-sum game.[27]

CONCLUSION

Vietnam’s water diplomacy since the adoption of Resolution 120 in November 2017 reflects the country’s concerns over the MDR’s sustainable development prospects in the context of climate change and intensive human interventions in the Mekong River Basin. Treating Mekong issues as a national security matter, Vietnam has mobilized resources for the development of the MDR and promoted regional cooperation towards a sustainable Mekong River Basin.

However, the divergence in development direction and interests of Mekong countries, as well as the region’s complex interactions with external actors, remains a challenge. The key to overcoming these barriers is a win-win approach to water diplomacy, in which water is viewed as a shared resource, and all parties realize that they can best achieve mutually beneficial outcomes by addressing common water issues while taking into consideration the broader economic, social and environmental contexts that each country is facing.


ENDNOTES

[1] Full text of the Resolution (in Vietnamese) is available at: http://dwrm.gov.vn/uploads/laws/file/2017/120-nq-cp-ve-phat-trien-ben-vung-dbscl-thich-ung-bdkh.pdf

[2]VOV World, “Vietnam Contributes to Regional Economic Connectivity through GMS”, 15 March 2018, https://vovworld.vn/en-US/content/NTQ1OTEz.vov.

[3] MRC, “Basin-Wide Assessment of Climate Change Impacts on Hydropower Production: Final Report”, 2019, https://www.mrcmekong.org/assets/Publications/Basin-wide-Assessment-of-Climate-Change-Impacts-on-Hydropower-Production_report-13May19.pdf.

[4] Nhan Dan Online, “Vietnam to Host Audit of Water Management Cooperation in Mekong River Basin”, 23 December 2020, https://en.nhandan.vn/scitech/item/9426402-vietnam-to-host-audit-of-water-management-cooperation-in-mekong-river-basin.html.

[5] VNSC, ‘Vietnam National Space Center coordinates with Mekong River Commission in exploiting satellite data application’, 4 December 2018, https://vnsc.org.vn/en/news-events/vietnam-national-space-center-coordinates-with-mekong-river-commission-in-exploiting-satellite-data-application/.

[6] Susanne Schmeier and Zaki Shubber, ‘Anchoring water diplomacy – The legal nature of international

river basin organizations’, Journal of Hydrology 567 (2018): 114-120.

[7] Han Phoumin and Minh Thu To, “Water Resources Management in the Mekong Basin”, in Subregional Development Strategy in ASEAN after COVID-19: Inclusiveness and Sustainability in the Mekong Subregion (Mekong 2030), edited by Fukunari Kimura (Jakarta: ERIA, 2019), pp. 161–190.

[8] Volker Ritterberger, “Global Conference Diplomacy and International Policy-Making: The Case of UN-Sponsored World Conferences”, European Journal of Political Research 11 (1983): 167-182.

[9] Koichi Sato, “The Rise of China’s Impact on ASEAN Conference Diplomacy: A Study of Conflict in the South China Sea”, Journal of Contemporary East Asia Studies 2, no. 2 (2013): 95-110.

[10] Rittergerger, ‘Global Conference Diplomacy’.

[11] The inter-regional cooperative mechanisms include Mekong–US Partnership, Mekong–Japan Summit, Mekong–Republic of Korea Summit, Mekong–Ganga Cooperation, and Mekong–Australia Partnership.

[12] Fabio Figiaconi, “Geopolitical Competition in the Indo-Pacific: The Mekong Region”, ISPI Online, 2 April 2020, https://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/geopolitical-competition-indo-pacific-mekong-region-25627.

[13] Chris Sneddon and Coleen Fox, “Power, Development, and Institutional Change: Participatory Governance in the Lower Mekong Basin”, World Development 35, no. 12 (2007): 2161-2181; Truong-Minh Vu and Maximilian Mayer, “Hydropower infrastructure and regional order making in the Sub-Mekong region”, Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional 61, no. 1 (2019).

[14] Viet Nam News, “Mekong sub-regional co-operation must converge with ASEAN goals: official”, 14 June 2020, https://vietnamnews.vn/politics-laws/749602/mekong-sub-regional-co-operation-must-converge-with-asean-goals-official.html.

[15] Full text of the joint communiqué is available at: https://asean.org/joint-communique-of-the-53rd-asean-foreign-ministers-meeting/

[16] Hoang Thi Ha and Farah Nadine Seth, “The Mekong River Ecosystem in Crisis: ASEAN Cannot be a Bystander”, ISEAS Perspective (2021/69).

[17] An Nhien, “ASEAN Cần Tập Trung Vào Các Khía Cạnh Khác Nhau Của Phát Triển Tiểu Vùng’” Công An Nhân Dân Online, 9 September 2020, https://cand.com.vn/Su-kien-Binh-luan-thoi-su/ASEAN-can-tap-trung-vao-cac-khia-canh-khac-nhau-cua-phat-trien-tieu-vung-i580025/; Asian Development Bank, “ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting – Masatsugu Asakawa”, 10 September 2020, https://www.adb.org/news/speeches/asean-foreign-ministers-meeting-masatsugu-asakawa; ASEAN Vietnam 2020, “ASEAN Forum on Sub-Regional Development Opens”, 14 July 2020, https://www.asean2020.vn/xem-chi-tiet1/-/asset_publisher/ynfWm23dDfpd/content/asean-forum-on-sub-regional-development-opens.

[18] Phan The Thang, “Vietnam’s efforts and initiatives as ASEAN Chair 2020 – Challenges of and response to the COVID-19 pandemic”, Vietnam Pictorial, 14 May 2020, https://vietnam.vnanet.vn/english/vietnams-efforts-and-initiatives-as-asean-chair-2020—challenges-of-and-response-to-the-covid-19-pandemic/446014.html.

[19] VGP, “Preliminary Outcomes Of Three-year Implementation Of Resolution On Climate-resilient development Of Mekong Delta”, 13March 2021, http://news.chinhphu.vn/Home/Preliminary-Outcomes-Of-Threeyear-Implementation-Of-Resolution-On-Climateresilient-development-Of-Mekong-Delta/20213/43202.vgp

[20] “WBG Country Partnership Framework for Vietnam 2018 – 2022: Key Priorities”, World Bank, 5 July 2017, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/infographic/2017/07/05/wbg-country-partnership-framework-for-vietnam-2018-2022-key-priorities.

[21] World Bank, “Investment Project Financing (IPF)”,  worldbank.org/en/what-we-do/products-and-services/financing-instruments/investment-project-financing.

[22] Vietnam Investment Review, “Vietnam-Netherlands Issue Joint Statement”, 9 April 2019, https://vir.com.vn/vietnam-netherlands-issue-joint-statement-66987.html.

[23] Ousmane Dione, “Mekong Delta Conference”, World Bank, 19 June 2019, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/speech/2019/06/19/mekong-delta-conference.

[24] VGP, “Preliminary Outcomes Of Three-year Implementation”.

[25] Vu and Mayer, “Hydropower infrastructure and regional order making in the Sub-Mekong region”.

[26] Shafiqul Islam and Lawrence Susskind, “Using Complexity Science and Negotiation Theory to Resolve Boundary-Crossing Water Issues, Journal of Hydrology 562 (2018): 589-598.

[27] ibid.

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