2023/96 “Vietnam’s Quest for Enhanced Maritime Domain Awareness” by Bich Tran


The CSB-8021, one of the Vietnam Coast Guard’s newest ships. Picture uploaded to Facebook on 29 August 2021. Source: Facebook, VietDefence at https://www.facebook.com/VietDefenseVN.


  • Maritime domain awareness (MDA) is crucial to Vietnam’s defence of its territorial integrity and safety of navigation as well as its economic interests and marine environment. 
  • Vietnam has been enhancing its underwater, surface, and coastal domain awareness by modernising its sea, air, and space assets through both self-help efforts and external assistance.
  • Vietnam also partakes of international cooperation and information sharing to improve collective MDA capabilities. 
  • To have adequate MDA to monitor its long coastline and vast maritime area, however, Vietnam needs to accelerate its adoption of advanced space technologies, further embrace multilateral maritime security cooperation, and invest in grassroots solutions.

*Bich Tran is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore and Adjunct Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/96, 8 December 2023

Download PDF Version


Vietnam is a maritime nation with a long coastline and a vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).[1] As such, maritime domain awareness (MDA) is essential for the country to protect its maritime security. Since setting the goal in 2006 of turning itself into a strong regional marine economy,[2] the country has improved its MDA through both self-help efforts and external assistance. This article discusses Vietnam’s perspective on maritime security and MDA; its modernisation of sea, air and space assets to enhance MDA; and the additional steps the country can take to boost its MDA.


Vietnamese authorities have yet to provide an official definition of “maritime security”.[3] However, an article on the Vietnam Border Guard’s website defines the concept as “a state of stability, safety, and freedom from sea-based or land-based threats that may impede the normal activities of countries, organisations, and individuals at sea, or sea-based threats to the normal activities of countries, organisations, and individuals on land.” [4] This definition implies that Vietnam’s notion of maritime security is comprehensive in nature, taking into account both traditional and non-traditional aspects.

Vietnam places tremendous importance on maritime security for several reasons. First, the country is involved in territorial disputes over the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Protecting its sovereignty and asserting its sovereign rights over these contested areas are the top priorities in Vietnam’s maritime strategy. Second, Vietnam’s export-oriented economy relies on the safety and freedom of navigation in its waters and the wider maritime region. Third, Vietnam depends on maritime resources for many economic activities, such as fishing, aquaculture, and offshore oil and gas exploration. Safeguarding these interests is therefore essential to Vietnam’s economic wellbeing. Lastly, protecting marine biodiversity and coastal habitats is crucial for Vietnam’s sustainable development.

As with the concept of “maritime security”, the concept of MDA has not been officially defined by Vietnamese authorities either. However, existing definitions are applicable. According to the International Maritime Organization, MDA is “the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact security, safety, the economy or the marine environment.”[5] Meanwhile, Transport Canada offers an expansive definition of MDA, which encompasses accurate and up-to-date information about “everything on, under, related to, adjacent to, or bordering a sea, ocean or other navigable waterway,” including any and all activities, structures, individuals, goods, vessels, and transportation methods.[6] It means MDA entails underwater, surface, and coastal domain awareness.

Thus, MDA serves as the “engine room” for maritime security governance at both national and international levels.[7] With a comprehensive awareness of the maritime domain, coastal states like Vietnam can better detect, deter, and respond to maritime security threats. Furthermore, with robust MDA, coastal states can understand maritime patterns, anticipate maritime security threats, and deal with them in an effective manner before they escalate. For example, knowing where threats are most likely to occur or where illegal activities often take place allows for more efficient deployment of patrol vessels, aircraft, and personnel.

At the national level, the main actors in Vietnam’s MDA are the Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN), the Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG), and the Vietnam Fisheries Resource Surveillance (VFRS).

The VPN is the core force in defending Vietnam’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and territorial integrity in its seas and islands. It also participates in natural disaster prevention and control, search and rescue, and protects marine economic activities in accordance with Vietnamese and international laws.[8] The VPN contributes to Vietnam’s MDA by deploying its naval assets, including ships, submarines and aircraft, for surveillance and reconnaissance missions over vast and critical maritime areas.

The VCG is a part of the People’s Armed Forces and serves as the state’s maritime law enforcement agency. It is responsible for protecting Vietnam’s sovereignty, sovereign rights, and national jurisdiction in its maritime regions; ensuring maritime security and order; and upholding both Vietnamese laws and international treaties to which Vietnam is a party. The VCG is equipped with ships, aircraft, weapons, explosives, support tools, and technical equipment to perform its functions, tasks, and powers.[9] By maintaining a consistent presence at sea, the VCG can detect, monitor, and address activities that may threaten Vietnam’s maritime interests.

The VFRS is a state agency that enforces Vietnam’s laws and international treaties related to aquatic resources. Its responsibilities include patrolling, inspecting and acting against violations; educating about fishing laws; protecting Vietnamese maritime sovereignty; and promoting international cooperation in fisheries surveillance. The VFRS has the authority to request relevant information, manage weapons and equipment for surveillance purposes, and chase or arrest non-compliant individuals or vessels.[10] An important aspect of the VFRS relates to its ensuring the legal implementation of aquatic exploitation and protection, including preventing illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Depending on specific issues, collaboration and coordination among VPN, VCG and VFRS might be handled through inter-agency mechanisms. For instance, the VFRS has closely coordinated with the VPN, the VCG, and other authorities to combat IUU fishing, aiming at lifting the European Commission’s “yellow card”—an official warning issued by the European Union to Vietnam for falling short in tackling IUU fishing.[11] However, there is no singular central agency solely dedicated to the coordination of all maritime activities.


Vietnam’s need to bolster its MDA stems from an array of evolving traditional and non-traditional security challenges affecting its national security and economic vitality. Chief among these is China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, including the construction and militarisation of artificial islands, and frequent naval patrols, all of which reinforce China’s expansive territorial and maritime claims. Vietnam also faces the persistent issue of IUU fishing, which not only threatens the economic wellbeing of local communities but also the country’s international reputation. Moreover, Vietnam grapples with the complex issue of smuggling, including drug trafficking, human trafficking, and the transportation of contraband. This further complicates its security environment. In response, Vietnam has been making an effort to enhance its underwater, surface, and coastal domain awareness, by modernising its sea, air, and space assets.

Underwater Domain Awareness

Vietnam has significantly enhanced its underwater domain awareness through the deployment of submarines. In 2009, the country placed an order for six Project 636 Kilo-class submarines from Russia, which were delivered between 2013 and 2017. These Kilo-class submarines are specifically designed for anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface-ship warfare, but are also capable of general reconnaissance and patrol missions. Regarded as one of the world’s most silent diesel submarines, they possess remarkable stealth capabilities. Equipped with advanced MGK-400EM digital sonars, their capacity to detect enemy submarines exceeds their own detectability range by three to four times. They can detect targets in sonar listening mode and engage in telephone and telegraph communication in both long-range and short-range modes. Moreover, they are equipped with radar that operates in periscope and surface modes, providing valuable information on underwater and air situations, radar identification, and navigational safety.[12]

Before acquiring the Kilo-class submarines, Vietnam had been operating two Yugo-class midget submarines obtained from North Korea.[13] The Yugo-class submarines, with their compact size, serve as cost-effective options for coastal operations and limited missions.[14] However, the Kilo-class submarines offer superior range, endurance, and versatility. Their larger size, advanced propulsion systems, and greater crew capacity enable them to undertake a wider array of missions and establish a more formidable maritime presence. This allows Vietnam to patrol its territorial waters and EEZ more effectively.

Surface Domain Awareness

Between 2011 and 2018, Vietnam made significant progress in enhancing its surface domain awareness by expanding its fleet of vessels, predominantly sourced from Russia. The VPN acquired four Project 10412 Svetlyak patrol crafts,[15] which can be deployed to various missions, including safeguarding coastal lines of communications. During this period, Vietnam also purchased four Gepard-3 frigates from Russia as part of its naval expansion. The first two frigates were ordered in 2006 and were successfully delivered in 2011, followed by two Gepard-3.9 versions which were delivered between 2017 and 2018. The Gepard 3.9 class frigates are well-equipped for convoy operations and patrols, and for safeguarding the maritime border and EEZ.[16] In addition, Vietnam constructed four FC-54 patrol crafts, known as TT400TP in Vietnamese, between 2012 and 2014 based on a design purchased from Russia. These ships were constructed at the Hong Ha Shipbuilding Plant under the supervision of the Defence Industry General Department.[17]

Vietnam has also increased the number of its vessels with the help of its foreign partners. In 2022, India handed over the 12 high-speed patrol boats built under the US$100-million line of credit extended to Vietnam in 2014.[18] In June 2023, India further announced it would provide Vietnam with an active-duty missile corvette–the first time India has ever granted a warship to another country.[19] Japan provided the VCG and VFSR with seven second-hand marine vessels (along with maritime safety equipment) in 2015, and six new patrol boats in 2017.[20] In 2020, Tokyo loaned Hanoi US$348.2 million to build six more patrol vessels, which are expected to be delivered to the VCG by 2025.[21] The VPN received two Pohang-class corvettes from South Korea in 2017 and 2018.[22] Meanwhile, the United States delivered 24 new Metal Shark patrol boats and two used Hamilton-class cutters to the VCG between 2017 and 2020.[23] In 2022, Washington promised to transfer another cutter to Hanoi.[24]

In addition, Vietnam has utilised airborne resources to enhance its surface domain awareness. In 2010, the VPN ordered three DHC-6 (Guardian-400 version) maritime patrol aircraft from Canada, which were delivered in 2014. These are used for surveillance as well as search and rescue missions across Vietnam’s coastal areas.[25] Additionally, in 2018, the VPN procured from Israel three Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with medium-altitude long-endurance capabilities, which were delivered in 2021. The Heron system is equipped to handle up to six diverse mission payloads simultaneously. This allows for complex intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance operations across various terrains, including at sea.[26]

Vietnam further augments its surface domain awareness using space-borne resources. In 2013, Vietnam achieved a significant milestone in its space programme with the launch of its first Earth observation satellite, VNREDSat-1, constructed by Airbus. The satellite has remained operational in orbit for ten years, double its anticipated lifespan. Throughout this extended period, VNREDSat-1 has played a vital role in tackling various challenges, including water resources management and coastal management.[27] Currently, Vietnam is exploring the development of the successor programme, VNREDSat-2; however, progress has stalled due to the pending finalisation of the procurement process, and the selection of the launching agency.[28]

In 2020, Vietnam commissioned the LOTUSat-1, a Japanese-built Earth observation satellite system funded by Official Development Assistance, from the Japan International Cooperation Agency. The system includes a satellite, a ground system, and training programmes. The satellite, equipped with Synthetic Aperture Radar, was initially slated for a 2023 launch, but the target has been shifted to 2024. The ground-based infrastructure comprises a parabolic antenna, a control hub for satellite operations, a centre for utilising mission data, and an interface for users. The LOTUSat-1 will be key in Vietnam’s efforts to combat natural disasters and address climate change issues.[29]

Vietnam has made use of its partners’ space assets to enhance its surface domain awareness. In 2018, Hanoi reached an agreement with New Delhi to set up the Data Reception and Tracking and Telemetry Station (DRTTS) in Ho Chi Minh City. The DRTTS allows India to track and receive data from its Earth observation satellites as they pass over Southeast Asia. In return, India provides Vietnam and its regional partners with satellite imagery, which is instrumental in monitoring China’s activities in the South China Sea.[30]

Vietnam’s surface domain awareness is also enhanced with SeaVision,[31] an advanced web-based maritime situational awareness tool promoted by the U.S. Navy and managed by the U.S. Department of Transportation. With its user-friendly interface, SeaVision allows users to view and analyse maritime data based on user-defined rules, facilitating better decision-making and response coordination. In November 2019, instructors of the U.S. Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific offered a training course in Hanoi for 16 members from different maritime authorities of Vietnam on how to use SeaVision to identify different situations at sea and to protect national sovereignty. In April 2021, the U.S. Office of Defence Cooperation and the Bureau of Drug Prevention and International Law Enforcement provided a similar online training course for various Vietnamese maritime agencies including the Vietnam Maritime Administration, provincial and municipal port authorities, the Maritime Search and Rescue Coordination Center, and the Directorate of Fisheries.[32]

Coastal Domain Awareness

To enhance its coastal domain awareness, Vietnam has strategically installed radar stations along its extensive coastline, from Quang Ninh Province and Hai Phong in the North to Phu Quoc Island in Kien Giang Province in the South. One example is the domestically produced VRS-CSX medium-range maritime radar built by Viettel High Technology Corporation.[33]

Another pillar of Vietnam’s coastal domain awareness is the vigilant monitoring of ports and other coastal facilities. In 2013, the Vietnamese General Department of Customs issued Regulations on Customs Supervision by Camera System, which mandated the installation of identification cameras, and CCTV operating 24/7 to monitor ports.[34] Since then, local authorities have instructed relevant agencies to install these surveillance cameras to look out for suspicious cargo and illicit activities.[35]

Additionally, Vietnam keeps a close watch on its coastal ecosystems with support from the Australian government. Notably, under Australia’s Marine Resources Initiative (MRI), which was launched in 2020, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Geoscience Australia, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) have utilised leading-edge satellite imaging and modelling technology to assist marine spatial mapping and coral reef monitoring in Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries.[36] Geoscience Australia has arranged two educational trips to Australia for Vietnamese officials and scientists to improve their understanding of seabed morphology, as well as data collection and processing techniques. Moreover, AIMS signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Institute of Oceanography in Vietnam to collaborate on coral reef monitoring.[37]


While the modernisation of sea, air, and space assets has significantly bolstered Vietnam’s MDA, there is still much room for improvement.

First, there is an urgent need for the country to accelerate its space programme. Even with an increased number of vessels, Vietnam struggles to adequately cover its extensive waters, making reliance on satellites and emerging technologies inevitable. The technology of Vietnam’s first earth observation satellite, VNREDSat-1, has become outdated due to technological advancements in the past decade. Moreover, with the rapid surge in data volume, there is a pressing need for artificial intelligence integration to detect anomalies and facilitate advanced data analysis.

Second, Vietnam needs to further embrace multilateral maritime security cooperation. Vietnam has actively participated in some regional multilateral capacity-building programmes, such as the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP),[38] Australia’s Maritime Consultancy 1.0 and 2.0 programs,[39] and the Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training exercise.[40] However, Vietnam has been reluctant to join the Critical Maritime Routes Indo-Pacific (CRIMARIO),[41] a maritime capacity-building initiative by the European Union. Officials from CRIMARIO have invited Vietnam to join the Indo-Pacific Regional Information Sharing (IORIS) platform, a secure web-based maritime coordination and information-sharing tool that can complement SeaVision to enhance Vietnam’s MDA capabilities. CRIMARIO has also offered a series of virtual training courses to Vietnamese officials. However, Vietnam has neither joined IORIS nor clearly communicated its intentions, leaving potential collaborators uncertain about its stance.[42]

Vietnam should also consider joining the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA), a technology and training initiative announced by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue member states (Australia, India, Japan and the United States) in 2022. IPMDA employs cutting-edge technology, including commercial satellite radio frequency, to provide regional partners with almost real-time information on activities taking place within their respective maritime zones.[43]

Finally, while Vietnam has predominantly adopted a top-down approach in bolstering its MDA, there is untapped potential in harnessing bottom-up initiatives. A viable strategy could involve equipping mariners from coastal communities with internet-connected smartphones, which allows the utilisation of free crowdsourced mobile applications like SeaWatch to combat IUU fishing. By actively documenting illicit activities they encounter at sea, these mariners would be able to provide valuable assistance to maritime authorities.[44] Such grassroots solutions are cost-effective ways to enhance the reach and efficiency of Vietnam’s maritime law enforcement.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

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).


2023/82 “Vietnam Seeks Intimate Ties with Cambodia and Laos” by Nguyen Khac Giang


Cambodia’s then Prime Minister Hun Sen (L), Vietnam’s former Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (C) and Laos’ Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith pose for a photo during a signing ceremony after the 10th Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam summit as part of the Greater Mekong Subregion Summit in Hanoi on 31 March 2018. (Photo by KHAM/POOL/AFP). Given their geographical proximity and shared history, Cambodia and Laos are viewed as integral components of Vietnam’s traditional sphere of influence.


  • Cambodia and Laos are considered an integral part of Vietnam’s traditional sphere of influence. Both are “special partners” and priorities in Vietnam’s foreign policy.
  • However, China’s increasing influence in the region since the late 2000s has challenged Vietnam’s position as the key economic and political partner of its two smaller neighbours.
  • In addition, bilateral issues, such as unfinished border demarcation with Cambodia and hydropower dams with Laos, further complicate Vietnam’s efforts to keep the two neighbours by its side.
  • Since Vietnam lacks the economic and financial means to match China’s resources, it has taken advantage of its strong historical relationships, political connections, infrastructure linkages, burgeoning economic activities, and robust people-to-people ties to devise an effective engagement strategy with Cambodia and Laos.
  • This strategy, which emphasises regionalisation and building linkages between the three countries and other regional and international partners, serves as a counterbalance to China’s influence in Cambodia and Laos, while also benefiting Vietnam and enhancing the strategic autonomy of its neighbours.

*Nguyen Khac Giang is Visiting Fellow in the Vietnam Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He was previously Research Fellow at the Vietnam Center for Economic and Strategic Studies.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/82, 16 October 2023

Download PDF Version


Given their geographical proximity and shared history, Cambodia and Laos are viewed as integral components of Vietnam’s traditional sphere of influence. However, since the late 2000s, this position has been increasingly challenged by China’s growing dominance in the Lower Mekong region. Beijing has surpassed Hanoi to become the primary investor and trade partner for both nations, anchoring them within its sphere of influence through infrastructure investments, concessional loans, and strengthened military cooperation.

Against this backdrop, Hanoi has witnessed a decline in both its economic standing and its influence on policy-making circles in Phnom Penh and Vientiane. This has raised serious security concerns for Vietnam and generated negative implications for its regional agenda, particularly regarding the South China Sea dispute.

This essay examines Vietnam’s ongoing challenges and prospects in its engagement with Cambodia and Laos, in light of China’s increasing influence. It begins by outlining the strategic significance of Cambodia and Laos to Vietnam before detailing Vietnam’s multifaceted challenges in navigating relationships with these neighbours and the economic and political tools available to Hanoi to preserve its influence in both countries. It concludes with insights into the potential trajectories of the trilateral ties.


Vietnam regards Cambodia and Laos not merely as neighbours, but as “brother nations”. Emerging from the former French Indochina, these three nations forged strong bonds during their respective struggles for independence. Vietnam makes these two nations a priority in its diplomacy, classifying them both as “special partners”. The Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) played a pivotal role in toppling the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, paving the way for Hun Sen’s rise to power and long-standing rule in Cambodia. Laos is Vietnam’s sole military ally in the post-Cold War era.[1] In instances like the 2000 unrest in Vientiane, the 2003 Houphan rebellion, and the 2007 Bokeo unrest, Vietnamese security forces came to the aid of the Lao communist regime.[2]

But this historical context is only part of the story. Hanoi views its ties with Cambodia and Laos as indispensable to its own security and economic advancement, and any instability in either nation invariably reverberates across Vietnam, and vice versa.[3]

First, as the two nations cover two-thirds of its land border, Vietnam naturally seeks assurance in having friendly regimes next door. This sentiment particularly resonates with Vietnam’s perpetual anxiety regarding its northern neighbour – China. Given the complex historical legacy and ongoing uncertainty regarding Beijing’s ambitions, consolidating an “Indochina” political front to shield against potential northern threats remains a significant task for Hanoi. Past failures to achieve this, such as in the late 1970s, pushed Vietnam to engage in armed conflicts on both the Northern border against China and the Southern border against Khmer Rouge Cambodia. These wars drained the country’s resources and isolated it from the international community, pushing it to the verge of catastrophe in the mid-1980s. Some contemporary discourses even suggest that Vietnam should reorient its strategic focus landward instead of concentrating solely on the South China Sea.[4]

Vietnam’s concerns go beyond security. Cambodia and Laos serve as conduits for Vietnam’s engagement with mainland Southeast Asia, including Thailand and Myanmar. Given China’s extensive infrastructural investments in the Lower Mekong region, Hanoi is wary of the so-called “infrastructural leverage trap”. The fear is that, once Chinese-backed connectivity frameworks are established, Vietnam might find itself marginalised from primary manufacturing chains and regional trade networks.[5]  

Second, Vietnam’s border regions adjacent to Cambodia and Laos present complex security challenges. Although Hanoi has largely managed to stave off widespread riots and unrests, the few that did erupt mostly originated from these border provinces, as evidenced by the recent deadly assault in Dak Lak Province that killed nine people.[6] Furthermore, these border areas are notorious hotbeds for human and drug trafficking. Ensuring border stability necessitates close collaboration with Cambodian and Lao authorities, particularly as Vietnamese law enforcement occasionally needs to conduct operations within these neighbours’ territories.[7]

Third, Cambodia and Laos contribute significantly to the legitimacy of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). Both were involved in the independence struggle that gave rise to modern Vietnam, where tens of thousands of Vietnamese sacrificed their lives as volunteer soldiers. In its 2019 Defence White Paper, the VPA lauded its endeavours in supporting Cambodia and Laos, invoking the late President Ho Chi Minh’s proclamation: “To help our friends is to help ourselves”.[8] Furthermore, Vietnam and Laos also have a shared interest in upholding socialist ideals. Consequently, any potential drift of Cambodia and Laos away from Vietnam’s orbit raises considerable anxiety among the general public and scholars alike, damaging the CPV’s historical legitimacy.[9]


Over the past decade, Vietnam’s role in the economic and political affairs of Cambodia and Laos has significantly been tested due to a multitude of factors.

First and foremost, China has replaced Vietnam as the chief economic stakeholder in both Cambodia and Laos. China accounts for nearly half of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Cambodia,[10] while half of Laos’ escalating public debt is attributed to China. Economic ascendancy inevitably provides political leverage, causing these traditional allies of Vietnam to distance themselves from Hanoi. This is markedly evident in their reluctance to involve themselves in the South China Sea dispute. For example, in 2012, Cambodia prevented ASEAN from releasing a joint communiqué, a first in 45 years, due to its unwillingness to mention the dispute in the document. Similarly, in 2016, under Laos’ ASEAN chairmanship, the association’s stance on the South China Sea was notably tempered, although the grouping managed to release a joint statement this time.[11] This shifting allegiance has made it increasingly difficult for Vietnam to build a more unified ASEAN position on the South China Sea dispute.

Second, Vietnam also faces distinct challenges in its bilateral relationships with Cambodia and Laos. These issues are rooted in history and in competing economic interests. Regarding Cambodia, contentious matters include the status of ethnic Vietnamese, unresolved border demarcation, and the potential stationing of the Chinese navy at the Ream Naval Base near Vietnam.[12] Additionally, anti-Vietnamese sentiments, sporadically voiced by Hun Sen himself,[13] exacerbate the situation. With regards to Laos, Vietnam’s primary concern lies in Laos’ hydropower development strategy, perceived by Hanoi as detrimental to the Mekong River’s ecosystem and Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Notably, half of Laos’ 60 dams on the Mekong’s tributaries and two on the Mekong mainstream are directly financed by China.[14]

Third, Vietnam’s slow post-pandemic economic recovery has limited its ability to fulfil its infrastructure commitments to its neighbours. In contrast to China’s swift completion of its Laos-China railway project within three years, Vietnam’s promised rail link between Vientiane and the Vietnamese seaport of Vung Ang has yet to be initiated.[15] Similarly, progress on a 2017 agreement to construct a highway connecting the economic hubs of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and Phnom Penh has only been made on the Cambodian side, as Vietnam struggles to secure the US$700 million needed for its section.[16]

Finally, the uncertainty of the two countries’ internal affairs also poses challenges to the formulation of a good strategic plan. In August 2023, Cambodia experienced a significant power transition with Hun Sen passing his prime ministerial role to his son, Hun Manet, accompanied by a comprehensive cabinet reshuffle.[17] Vietnamese leaders have been actively engaging with these shifts, as evidenced by meetings between Prime Minister (PM) Pham Minh Chinh, National Assembly Chairman Vuong Dinh Hue, and President Vo Van Thuong, and Hun Manet in 2022.[18] However, new leadership always brings about unpredictability, and the lack of historical connection between Hun Manet and Vietnam may make the situation even more challenging for Vietnam. Meanwhile, Laos’ precarious economic climate has led to political uncertainties and sporadic public protests since last year.[19] This culminated in PM Phankham Viphavanh’s resignation in December 2022,[20] and the country’s continued economic slump in 2023 has made it imperative for Hanoi to recalibrate its support strategies for Vientiane.


Vietnamese leadership recognises the importance of economic development in shaping the nature of the tripartite relationship. While Vietnam may not match China in terms of economic and financial resources, Hanoi has smartly capitalised on its geographic proximity in order to reinforce its economic ties with both Cambodia and Laos.

First, while China has more to offer in terms of big infrastructure projects as seen with the Laos–China railway project, Vietnam offers greater connectivity to landlocked Laos, particularly in terms of land roads and sea transportation. As the Vientiane-Vung Ang rail project has been delayed for years,[21] the main Vietnamese seaports in the central area, such as Vung Ang, Cua Lo, Chu Lai and Tien Sa, have been utilised as the export channel for Laos products to overseas markets. Vietnam can also help Cambodia to diversify trade and investment with the help of its extensive land connections. In fact, Vietnam is currently Cambodia’s biggest trade partner in ASEAN and plays an important role in linking up certain Cambodian industries to the global supply chain.[22]

Second, China may have the upper hand in state-led trade and investments, but Vietnam benefits from deeply rooted economic ties with both Laos and Cambodia, notably among non-state entities. Notably, Vietnam has 10 international border gates with Laos and 11 with Cambodia, while there are only five with China, despite China being Vietnam’s biggest trade partner. This shows the intensive cross-border economic activities among the three Lower Mekong nations, and Hanoi’s dedication to further integrate these three economies. In several key border regions, Vietnam has created or is in the process of constructing special economic zones to enhance economic connections, a plan launched by former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in 2010.[23] Laos and Cambodia are the first and second biggest recipients of Vietnam’s outward FDI.[24] Renowned Vietnamese corporations such as Viettel and Hoang Anh Gia Lai have invested in these countries for years, making major contributions to their infrastructural development and creating jobs for hundreds of thousands of people. These ties, born from both high-level initiatives and grassroots level engagement, are deeply rooted, and it would take a significant amount of time and efforts for China to replicate them.

Third, Vietnam has promoted economic linkage between the three countries, helping to reduce their dependence on China. Vietnamese officials often emphasise the importance of regionalisation in the CLV region in bilateral and trilateral talks. During a recent meeting with former Lao PM Phankham Viphavanh and Cambodian PM Hun Sen, Vietnamese PM Pham Minh Chinh asserted that fostering “independent and self-reliant economies” remains a strategic imperative for all three nations.[25] The Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam Development Triangle Area (CLV-DTA) – a regional cooperation framework that focuses on cross-border economic cooperation between the three countries – was originally proposed by Hun Sen in 1999. However, it was Vietnam that sought to expand the agreement from the original 13 provinces to the entire CLV region.[26]


Politically, Vietnam has significantly increased its bilateral and trilateral engagement with Cambodia and Laos across four key channels: party-to-party, government-to-government, parliament-to-parliament, and people-to-people. These channels have been in place for a while, but political activities have seen a notable resurgence since the early 2010s.

On the party-to-party dimension, the CPV has been keen to foster trilateral ties with the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). In 2011, the national fronts of the three countries – the top party institutions geared towards mobilising society – established a biannual meeting mechanism.[27] Other party institutions, such as youth unions, have also expedited many exchange activities between the three countries.[28] A stronger testament to this effort is the trilateral summit held in Hanoi on 26 September 2021, involving CPV General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, Cambodian PM Hun Sen, and Lao President Thongloun Sisoulith.[29] This summit was the first of its kind involving the leaders of three ruling parties to be held since the end of the Cold War. Moreover, the summit among the three party leaders was held again in Hanoi in early September 2023, suggesting that this could become a regular event.[30]

At the governmental level, the prime ministers and heads of state of the three nations frequently meet, both in specifically tailored events and on the sidelines of regional meetings. In 2010, then-President Nguyen Minh Triet visited both Laos and Cambodia in a single journey, emphasising the connection between the three countries and setting the precedent for other Vietnamese leaders to follow.[31] In late 2022, the national assemblies of the three countries concluded a tripartite agreement to initiate the biannual summit of the leaders of the three parliaments. The inaugural summit is scheduled for this year in Vientiane.[32] Additionally, people-to-people ties have deepened, with Vietnam offering scholarships and training programmes to thousands of cadres from Cambodia and Laos over the years.[33] Within border regions, Vietnamese mass organisations mobilise local residents to organise recurring cultural, sports and volunteer activities with neighbouring Cambodian and Laotian communities.

In essence, the three countries maintain regular and intensive interactions across all levels, a practice they do not have with other nations, including China.[34] Evidently, Vietnam’s strategy aims to establish, even if unofficially, a trilateral Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam (CLV) group. Considering all the cooperative frameworks, the frequency of high-level summits, and mutual commitments, the bond among CLV nations can be construed as a soft alliance network which aims to achieve common goals.

It is noteworthy that Hanoi has taken significant steps to demonstrate its perception of Cambodia and Laos as equals in their bilateral interactions. For example, at a reception for Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh and Lao Defence Minister Chansamone Chanyalath in December 2019, Vietnamese PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc emphasised the trilateral relationship of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos as a “three-legged stool” stabilised by mutual respect, equality and a win-win approach.[35] This stance is in stark contrast to China’s approach, which typically involves taking a dominant position with smaller nations. It also differs from Vietnam’s policy during the Cold War period.

Hanoi has also worked to strengthen its connections with its neighbours, not as an exclusive group but as an integral part of existing regional frameworks, particularly ASEAN. For example, Vietnam placed emphasis on the Mekong sub-region in ASEAN during its ASEAN chairmanship in 2020.[36] In addition, it has also involved other regional partners, such as Japan, South Korea, and the United States,[37] in collaboration with Laos and Cambodia. Accordingly, Japan has provided significant technical and financial aid for the CLV-DTA initiative.[38] In the Vietnam–Laos railway project, Hanoi has sought financial backing from South Korea and the Asian Development Bank. This strategy not only relieves some of Vietnam’s financial pressures but also builds positive perceptions from Vientiane and Phnom Penh as it reduces concerns of excessive reliance on Vietnam.


In the past decade, Vietnam has worked hard to foster unity within the CLV group amid China’s growing influence in Cambodia and Laos. Hanoi has leveraged its long-standing ties with political elites, vibrant grassroots economic connectivity and geographical proximity, to solidify the trilateral bonds. Rather than attempting to keep Cambodia and Laos as its “backyard”, Hanoi has made it clear that it wants to treat them as equals. It has also encouraged Phnom Penh and Vientiane to become more deeply integrated in regional frameworks and to engage with regional partners, thereby increasing their strategic autonomy and helping to address Vietnam’s security concerns.

Both Cambodia and Laos have strategic reasons for maintaining their strong relations with Vietnam as Hanoi offers certain benefits that other partners, including China, cannot match. For Laos, Vietnam provides the optimal route to the sea for commerce, while Cambodia stands to gain from its economic proximity to Vietnam. Furthermore, China-funded infrastructure projects have encumbered Laos and Cambodia with significant debts, making them susceptible to Beijing’s influence. Vietnam serves as a counterbalance to this dynamic, making strengthening bonds between the three countries a win-win situation for all. Moving forward, all three countries are motivated to strengthen their ties, especially as the regional geopolitical environment continues to be complex and uncertain. Economic integration is to be prioritised, as was highlighted at the tripartite party summit in September 2023, but defence-security and social connections will also be essential components.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

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).


“The Labour Politics of App-Based Driving in Vietnam” by Joe Buckley



2023/62 “Vietnam’s JETP Agreement: Accelerating the Energy Transition in a Just Way?” by Julia Behrens


This aerial view taken on September 25, 2022 shows solar panels at Sao Mai solar energy plant in An Giang province in Vietnam. Photo: AFP.


  • The Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) agreement between Vietnam and the International Partnership Group was announced in December 2022. As a general agreement on advancing a just energy transition for climate change mitigation, it outlines some concrete steps for implementing the energy transition but is legally non-binding.
  • Vietnam’s power sector needs to transition away from its heavy reliance on coal if it is to meet its net-zero-emission goal by 2050.
  • Vietnam’s energy transition is currently hampered by inadequate legal regulations, insufficient capacity of the relevant Vietnamese authorities, lengthy decision-making processes, a lack of cooperation between relevant authorities and a lack of financial investment.
  • Although the JETP agreement has the potential to address the lack of investment and capacity, unless the Vietnamese government speeds up decision-making processes and enhances cooperation among its ministries, the implementation of the agreement and other energy-related policies will be delayed.
  • The “just” aspect in the JETP might be achieved with regard to the reskilling of workers and the advancing of decent jobs. However, it will not be “just” in the sense of involving non-governmental organisations and the media in the making of energy policies, as Vietnam’s increasingly oppressive political context makes it difficult for civil society actors to participate in the process.

* Julia Behrens is a post-doc fellow at the University of Bielefeld, Germany. Before that, she led the project on Climate and Energy in Asia at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, based in Hanoi.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/62, 27 July 2023

Download PDF Version


Vietnam has an electrification rate of nearly 100 per cent,[1] largely due to its rapid economic growth precipitating a ten-fold increase in energy demand over the past two decades.[2] The country is highly dependent on coal for energy, with the share of coal in the country’s electricity production increasing by about 11 per cent annually between 2011 and 2021,[3] making it the fastest growing coal consumer within ASEAN. By 2018, coal had become Vietnam’s largest source of electricity, followed by hydropower, with the installed coal power capacity increasing four-fold from 2010 to 2020. In 2022, the total installed power capacity of the country reached nearly 77,800 MW, of which 26.4 per cent were renewable energy sources (excluding hydropower).[4] Hydropower accounted for another 29 per cent of the energy mix, while fossil fuels (coal and gas) made up around 44 per cent.[5] About 72 per cent of Vietnam’s coal use is for electricity production. Under a business-as-usual scenario, emissions from the energy sector are projected to account for 74 per cent of Vietnam’s total emissions by 2030, making it the largest climate change mitigation sector in the country.

Since 2019, Vietnam has seen a surge in renewable energy usage, with its newly installed solar power and wind power capacity reaching 20,000 MW in just three years between 2019 and 2021.[6] Such a shift towards renewable energy could bring various benefits, such as improved public health, job creation, and forest protection.[7] Additionally, since Vietnam is one of the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change challenges,[8] the urgent transition to renewable energy as a mitigation measure must be taken. This is laid out in the Power Development Plan VIII (PDP8), which was adopted in May 2023 after a two-year delay.[9] It guides the development of the country’s power sector for the period 2021-2030, with a vision to 2050, formulating goals for energy development and tasking different government authorities with the practical steps and responsibilities needed.

So far, there have been a multitude of international partnerships and projects put in place to drive the global energy transition towards renewable energy,[10] and many of these have been awaiting the PDP8 for implementation and progress. In December 2022, the International Partnership Group (IPG) and Vietnam announced their Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP).[11] Despite the country’s commitment made at the COP26 summit to peak emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050, Vietnam’s renewable energy boom from 2019-2021 has seen a decline, while its implementation of energy transition policies has faced challenges, with the delayed release of PDP8 being a case in point. With the JETP and the now approved PDP8, will Vietnam finally be able to advance its implementation of energy transition initiatives? This article explores what the JETP means for Vietnam’s energy transition and how effectively the partnership lives up to its promises, especially regarding the “just” aspect of the agreement.


The JETP model was introduced by the G7 countries and the European Union (EU) as a financing tool to implement their climate commitments to the Global South. Through this tool, G7 and EU members aim to promote energy transition in developing countries, emphasising inclusiveness and worker protection based on the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) framework on just transition.[12] These targeted countries are typically those that already emit high levels of CO2 and are projected to have an increased energy demand in the future as well as potential for renewable energy. They should also have demonstrated political commitment to an energy transition.[13] The JETPs are an important contribution to fulfilling the G7’s goal of supporting climate mitigation and adaptation in the Global South, although they focus on private investment and loans rather than grants. In addition, they can be seen as a way to create markets for technology exports and to exert strategic influence on other countries’ power sectors. The first deal with South Africa was announced in 2021, followed by the second with Indonesia and the third with Vietnam in 2022. Negotiations are currently underway for new agreements with India and Senegal.[14]

The JETP agreement with Vietnam aims to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants by limiting peak capacity to 30.2 GW by 2030, down from the 37 GW previously planned by the Vietnamese government. This would mean that coal would account for 20 per cent of the power mix, compared to the current level of approximately a third.[15] Despite projected growth in GDP and power demand, coal power capacity would only be allowed to expand slightly from its current capacity of 24.6 GW.[16] Renewable energy sources, on the other hand, are expected to rise to 47 per cent of total electricity generation by 2030 and 72 per cent by 2050. To reach these goals, the agreement provides a structure of loans and grants worth USD7.5 billion, which is expected to be matched by an additional USD7.5 billion in private investment. PDP8 underlines that the Vietnamese government will only be able to reach the formulated goals if its JETP partners live up to their commitments. The agreement also allows for the use of carbon capture and storage technologies as a way to reach emissions reduction targets.[17]

Concrete steps to achieve the above goals are not stated in the agreement. The agreement is also not legally binding and uses rather soft language, often relying on words such as “should”.[18] By November 2023, Vietnam must adopt a Resource Mobilization Plan in order to decide on the implementation, funding and strategy for the JETP.


The JETP concept emphasises the importance of justice and recognising the energy transition as not only a technical process but also a social one that requires the active inclusion of workers, affected communities, and other vulnerable groups. It also stresses the importance of creating a supportive structure for those affected by the coal phase-out, such as through reskilling programmes and educational opportunities. The reskilling programme is crucial in order to prevent unemployment and develop skilled jobs. Model projects for reskilling already exist and are funded by international development cooperation, but so far these are very small in scale and limited to a few selected colleges (cao đẳng). Workers’ consultations are likely to be conducted through trade unions, which are ultimately controlled by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). This provides access to workers but will likely be limited and structured in a top-down manner.

Another emphasis in the agreement, also underlined by PDP8, is on the affordability and access to energy, which must not be negatively impacted by the energy transition. In addition to affordability, there must be a “just” approach to land use which does not harm agriculture and aquaculture production, particularly for communities in areas where renewable energy sources are to be developed. Economic inclusion through energy access and a sensible and equitable approach to land rights are both essential for the CPV and its legitimacy.

More problematic is the agreement’s provision that for the transition to be just and equitable, “regular consultation is required, including with media, NGOs and other stakeholders so as to ensure a broad social consensus.”[19] In recent years, energy transition has become an issue of interest to non-government organisations (NGO) in Vietnam, including local ones. However, since the January 2022 arrest of Nguy Thi Khanh, the most vocal and renowned advocate for renewables within the local NGO community, and her conviction for alleged tax evasion, NGOs have become increasingly wary of publicly expressing their opinions. This is despite Khanh’s release in May 2023. Administrative procedures for NGOs have become more stringent, too, particularly in terms of obtaining permits for implementation of projects. Against this backdrop, the only public statement on Vietnam’s JETP by a local organisation has been the press release of the Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition (VIET), a local independent think tank.[20] Other organisations have not yet dared to comment publicly on the agreement, both out of caution and due to the lack of information on the matter from the government. Media reports have also been scarce. The hope of the IPG to press for an inclusive, participative process for the JETP in Vietnam, therefore, seems unrealistic and the justice aspect of the JETP hence limited. Community consultation might be the only way to ensure some basic inclusivity and transparency in the process.


Vietnam’s energy policy is overseen by the Ministry of Industry and Trade (MOIT), and the main instrument of energy development policy is power development plans (PDP). The seventh PDP (PDP7) expired in 2020, and PDP8 was approved in May 2023 after extended delays. PDP8 recognises the power sector’s importance for sustainable development, with a focus on economic, social and security policy, as well as meeting environmental concerns through commitments to renewable energy and “new energy” such as green hydrogen.[21] The specific goals for renewable energy are wide and conditional, and rely on the JETP to come through. If JETP is implemented successfully, a 47 per cent share of renewable energy by 2030 and around 70 per cent by 2050 could be reached. PDP8 emphasises newly-installed power capacity by 2030 with wind, rooftop solar for self-consumption, hydropower, and liquefied natural gas (LNG). PDP8 also explicitly refers to the JETP and calls it an “important solution” for the energy transition.[22] Consequently, PDP8 has strengthened the JETP on paper, signalling political will for the energy transition. Nevertheless, to promote the sustainable development of renewable energy, further steps, such as a renewable energy law and a reliable pricing mechanism, are still needed.

Central to the success of the energy transition is an extension of the grid capacity that has been unable to keep up with the rapid increase in renewable capacities. This has resulted in the decision by Vietnam Electricity (EVN), the only off-taker in Vietnam’s electricity market, to implement curtailment, causing many renewable energy projects, both big and small, to lose around 40 per cent of their output and suffer devastating financial losses.[23] To address this issue, the JETP agreement has included investment and research into grid transformation, which could result in improved technical standards and grid infrastructure to accommodate a larger renewable energy capacity. Despite the complexity of this task, it is nevertheless feasible if all actors involved cooperate effectively and the legal framework reduces bureaucratic restrictions for this large-scale infrastructure project.[24]

For the energy transition to move forward, a clear political signal from the CPV leadership is necessary to prioritise its implementation and accelerate the bureaucratic processes in approving investments for projects. Moreover, the government needs to ensure cooperation between all relevant authorities, such as the MOIT and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE). While MOIT is tasked with energy development and PDP8, MONRE is in charge of JETP. So far, cooperation has been lacking. For example, no MONRE representatives have participated in meetings of the Vietnam Energy Partnership Group chaired by MOIT and the World Bank to discuss the implementation of the energy transition with international and local partners. A strong signal from the top leadership demonstrating support for PDP8 and JETP can also help address the lack of capacity within the executive system and officials’ hesitancy to make decisions.

These two latter issues arise primarily from the CPV’s current anti-corruption campaign, which is considered the most comprehensive anti-corruption effort in the history of the party.[25] The campaign has resulted in the removal of President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and two deputy prime ministers in early 2023. Before that, Dinh La Thang became the first Politburo member to receive a 30-year prison sentence. Additionally, 7,500 party members have faced criminal investigations since 2021.[26] The campaign has made public servants and decision-makers, including those in state-owned enterprises, highly risk-averse and reluctant to make decisions or approve projects for fear of being caught up in the campaign. At the same time, 40,000 public employees have resigned since 2020,[27] further weakening the capacity of the bureaucracy. To some extent, the campaign has therefore impeded the energy transition, which requires the prompt approval of infrastructure projects and the active participation of capable policy makers and bureaucrats.

The MOIT and MONRE are only two players in the complex game of energy transition. Behind them lie a myriad of vested interests, ranging from coal-producing provinces in the North to the provinces in the Central and the South with the highest potential for renewable energy. While around two-thirds of coal-fired power plants are owned by state-owned enterprises, these enterprises hold only a small share of renewable energy sources like solar (four per cent) and wind (one per cent) in 2021.[28] Private investments from G7 countries also often come with their own agenda, such as creating new opportunities for the export of their technology and expertise. In order to ensure a just transition, it is essential to recognise and understand the divergent interests involved in the energy transition and the obstacles that must be overcome.

Another issue that makes the reliance on coal entrenched is political decision-makers’ perception that coal is the more stable and dependable power source.[29] This is because CPV leaders fear potential social unrest should electricity prices rise during the energy transition.[30] Maintaining social stability is essential to the CPV’s political security, and ultimately its rule. This is also the reason why the MOIT has avoided introducing carbon taxes and other similar measures,[31] despite research indicating citizens would be willing to pay more for electricity, and the fact that off-grid solar power projects could reduce electricity prices since they could replace gasoline generators in remote areas.[32]


Vietnam’s JETP offers international expertise and financing options to facilitate the country’s energy transition. However, it cannot address some key barriers to making this transition successful, such as the lack of political will, bureaucratic inertia, and dilemmas on how to deal with vested interests both inside and outside the country. The “just” aspect of the JETP can act as an incentive for the MOIT to consult with workers and affected communities, but it is important to acknowledge the possibility that the JETP may never meet the IPG’s definition of justice, and the participative process may always be limited to what the CPV allows. NGOs and the media will unlikely be able to meaningfully engage in the process. Ultimately, a successful JETP depends on political conditions, and while PDP8 is a step in the right direction, more action is needed.

There is also a risk that the JETP signed with Vietnam, with its limited approach to justice, could set a lower standard for IPG’s negotiations with other countries. Moreover, the potential issue of JETP financing structures not meeting the standards of just climate finance, in light of the historic responsibilities of industrialised countries, must be duly recognised and addressed. Therefore, close observation of all JETP agreements in the future is necessary.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

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).


2023/47 “What Drives Vietnam’s Tightened Public Sphere?” by Nguyen Khac Giang and Dien Nguyen An Luong


A woman uses her smartphone while waiting atop her scooter along a street in Hanoi on 10 uly 2020. Photo: MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP.


  • Since 2016, the Vietnamese government has tightened its grip on traditional media, the online sphere, and civil society.
  • This tightening of the public sphere is part of the effort by the conservative faction within the Communist Party of Vietnam to increase the Party’s control over the state and society. This has been made possible by the Vietnamese state’s improved capability in managing cybersphere and its increased leverage in negotiations with Western partners.
  • The weaponization of laws and regulations has become the strategy of choice for Vietnamese authorities, who have become increasingly adept at exploiting economic leverage to strong-arm Big Tech into compliance.
  • The intensified crackdown has created an increasingly subservient and fear-filled atmosphere around both mainstream media and cyberspace, unnerving the civil society community.
  • This trend is likely to persist until 2026, when a new generation of leadership emerges. However, if the Vietnamese leadership continues to suppress online discussions and curtail press freedom, they risk losing a vital channel of feedback. Over time, this could create a widening gulf between the public and its political leaders, leading to instability.

* Nguyen Khac Giang is Visiting Fellow at the Vietnam Studies Programme. He was previously Research Fellow at the Vietnam Center for Economic and Strategic Studies. Dien Nguyen An Luong is Visiting Fellow at the Media, Technology and Society Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. A journalist with significant experience as managing editor at Vietnam’s top newsrooms, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, South China Morning Post, and other publications.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/47, 19 June 2023

Download PDF Version


Since 2016, Vietnam’s public sphere has come under increasing scrutiny and control by the government, with traditional media, the online sphere, and civil society being the primary targets. This conservative shift in the one-party state is a departure from the relatively lenient period that followed the nation’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2007 and until the 12th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) in 2016.

The tightening of civil society has been particularly evident in recent years, with various restrictions being imposed through both legal and extra-legal means on the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social movements.[1] This was made clear in 2022, when numerous prominent NGO leaders were charged and arrested.[2] The traditional media landscape has also been subject to greater controls, with journalists and editors cowed by increasingly comprehensive censorship and stricter regulations. As the new main platform for propaganda, the cybersphere has been subject to new restrictive regulations, more targeted punishments, and legions of pro-government trolls tasked with countering negative discussions about the regime.

This article explores three major factors contributing to Vietnam’s increasingly restrictive public sphere since 2016. First, we argue that this is part of an effort spearheaded by the conservative faction of the CPV to increase their control over the state and society after the 12th CPV Congress in 2016. Second, while Vietnamese officials started recognizing the potential for collective action against the regime in the late 2000s and early 2010s, it was not until the late 2010s that they had the necessary capacity to respond effectively. Finally, Vietnam’s growing significance in the context of great power competition has enabled Hanoi to withstand external pressure from the United States and European Union regarding human rights and democratic practices. The article concludes by discussing the implications of this trend for Vietnam’s future.


In the early 2010s, Vietnam’s public sphere was characterized by a sense of relative optimism. Traditional media were blossoming, and journalists were granted some freedom to perform their jobs. Although there were occasional setbacks, such as the unprecedented state-sanctioned crackdown on the press in 2008,[3] investigative journalism[4] and media coverage of official corruption[5] were largely tolerated by the authorities. The early 2000s saw the launch of online versions of established newspapers, with major tech companies entering the fray in the mid-2000s, accelerating the development of Vietnam’s online media space.[6]

The nascent civil society was also emerging, exemplified by the rise of non-state social organisations, such as Vietnamese NGOs (VNGOs), community-based organizations (CBOs), and independent movements connected via the Internet. Facebook became the preferred platform among Vietnamese netizens after its launch in 2008, enabling online activism to thrive.[7] After a series of failed attempts to exert greater control over social media, the Vietnamese government ultimately conceded to Facebook’s popularity in 2015.[8]

This more open public sphere created a positive feedback loop within the previously rigidly-controlled political system. This was a rare time when people could make their grievances heard and addressed through popular mobilisations, both online and offline. For instance, in 2015, a government plan to fell 6,700 trees in Hanoi spurred Vietnamese netizens to form an online movement on Facebook to protest it.[9] This backlash led the government to scrap the plan and punish the officials responsible.[10] A year later, environmental concerns unified Vietnamese Facebook users in a protest against a major marine pollution incident caused by a steel plant of Formosa, a Taiwanese investor, in Ha Tinh Province.[11] The newly established government after the 12th Congress felt the need to demonstrate responsiveness to public demands, forcing Formosa to accept responsibility and pay US$500 million in compensation to the affected fishermen.[12]


However, for the one-party state, particularly the conservatives, these effective cases of activism posed a great threat, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in late 2010.[13] To them, the media, the Internet, and civil society had the potential to mobilise protests[14] and empower the public to challenge the legitimacy of the CPV.[15] Nonetheless, during the leadership of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who was in office from 2006 to 2016, economic development was prioritized over social controls, and the country was willing to loosen its grip on the public sphere in exchange for advantageous trade agreements with Western partners.

The crackdown only began after the 12th CPV Congress, when the conservative faction emerged victorious with the re-election of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong while his main rival, Nguyen Tan Dung, retired. As a staunch communist apparatchik, Trong sought to address the ideological and moral decay of some elements in both the party and society, which had caused corruption and other social ills.[16]

In one of its earliest actions, the 12th Central Committee under the leadership of Trong issued Resolution 04 – NQ/TW, which identified what the CPV considered to be signs of “self-evolution” and “self-transformation” that could threaten the regime’s survival.[17] One such sign was the presence of civil society. According to CPV propagandist, the West employs “civil society” as a tool to weaken and ultimately destroy communist rule in Vietnam by instigating gradual and non-violent changes within the country.[18] This viewpoint explains the indefinite suspension of the long-awaited Law on Association in late 2016.[19] In 2018, the Politburo issued another important resolution, Resolution 35–NQ/TW, which focused on “strengthening the protection of the Party’s ideological foundation, combating and refuting erroneous and hostile viewpoints in the new situation”.[20]

These two resolutions laid the foundation for the creation of various institutions dedicated to managing and overseeing ideological work, as well as for establishing a regulatory framework to control the public sphere. In accordance with Resolution 35, a unified “steering committee” was established at all levels of the party hierarchy to “proactively counter hostile opinions” about the party and “closely monitor” the ideological beliefs of party members and citizens.[21] Although the party has not released the exact numbers of these committees, a report in Quang Ninh Province revealed that every government/party agency must appoint 5-10 cadres responsible for “combating wrongful views on cyberspace”.[22]

The CPV also instructed the establishment of new specialized agencies exclusively focused on fighting ideological battles in cyberspace. These include Force 47 (Lực lượng 47), estimated to have at least 10,000 personnel in 2017,[23] and the Cyberspace Operations Command (also known as Command 86), both under the Ministry of National Defense. The Ministry of Public Security, the one-party state’s main repressive institution, has also invested heavily in its cyber capabilities.[24]


Mainstream media and cyberspace

Given the CPV’s long-standing concern about collective actions, it is unsurprising that the cybersphere is the first target of its intensified crackdown. Vietnam’s increased control of cyberspace has revolved around three main tactics: blocking and removing content that its authorities deem inappropriate; bolstering its monitoring of social media; and prosecuting online critics.

In tightening the screws in the cybersphere, Vietnam has employed a range of laws and regulations. Decree 72, enacted in 2013, has been widely seen as the legal basis for Meta’s Facebook and Google’s YouTube to limit or remove content at the request of Vietnamese authorities.[25] The full-blown weaponization of the decree became evident in 2017, when Google[26] and Facebook[27] reported the amount of material the Vietnamese government asked them to restrict access to. Growing concerns over social media culminated in the passage and implementation of the Cybersecurity Law in 2018. Said to bear striking similarities to its Chinese equivalent, the Vietnamese law is also characterized by broad and ambiguous provisions that allow officials to control its implementation while perpetuating self-censorship among Internet users. In October 2022, Vietnam enacted Decree 53 to guide the implementation of the 2018 Cybersecurity Law,[28] which further empowers Vietnamese authorities to censor online content they disapprove of and strengthen the state’s digital surveillance capability.

Vietnam ranks seventh among the top ten countries with the highest number of Facebook users,[29] with the company reportedly generating an annual revenue of more than US$1 billion from Vietnam’s market of nearly 70 million users.[30] According to DataReportal figures, YouTube has 63 million users in Vietnam, and TikTok around 50 million.[31] As such, by threatening to shut down any social platform deemed not compliant with local laws, Vietnamese authorities have become increasingly adept at exploiting their economic leverage to arm-twist Big Tech into compliance. In 2020, for instance, Vietnam threatened to block Facebook if it did not agree to remove anti-government posts on its platform.[32] This brinkmanship tactic seems to have been effective. According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Information and Communications, Facebook complied with 90% of Vietnam’s content removal requests during the first quarter of 2022, while YouTube went along with 93%.[33]

The post-2016 era has also seen Vietnamese authorities heavily invest in beefing up online monitoring efforts by mobilizing Force 47[34] in a bid to maintain “a healthy cyberspace” and to protect the regime from “wrong”, “distorting”, or “false news”.[35] Additionally, the authorities have enlisted members of society to act as pro-state opinion shapers, creating dossiers on online dissidents or critics who are accused of spreading “false news” about the regime and reporting any possible violations of Vietnamese laws to the authorities.[36]

State-orchestrated efforts to control the cybersphere have resulted in an increasingly submissive and fearful social media landscape. Big Tech firms have become accustomed to acquiescing to Hanoi’s censorship requests, hoping to appease regulators. Mai Truong argued that by filling the Politburo with staunch defence-security figures, Vietnam has been able to prevent online popular discontent from turning into real-life protests.[37]

The fear-cloaked dynamic has also permeated the mainstream media. Vietnamese authorities have appeared increasingly emboldened in threatening to revoke the license of news outlets that dare to go against the party line. Nowhere is this strategy more manifest than in a state-orchestrated blueprint enforced in 2019 that seeks to strengthen and centralize state control over the media by axing or merging hundreds of press organizations.[38] Accordingly, Hanoi aims to slash around 180 press organisations across the country by 2025,[39] citing the need to revamp the bloated bureaucracy and overlapping ownership that have plagued the news industry. While the plan is legitimate to some extent, critics have lamented that authorities are using it as a smokescreen to shepherd news outlets into churning out uniform coverage that promotes official narratives.[40]

Civil society

In a move that seems to be a copy of the Chinese approach,[41] the Vietnamese government has also been relying on weaponizing laws and regulations to crack down on civil society. According to advocacy groups, since 2016, Vietnamese authorities have used tax laws and the Penal Code to go after activists, charging them with “tax evasion”, “anti-state propaganda” or “abusing democratic freedoms”.[42] In April 2023, The 88 Project, a human rights group, released a report detailing how the “tax evasion” charge has been “arbitrarily applied for the purpose of political persecution”, citing the cases of four prominent Vietnamese environment activists as examples.[43] The latest casualty of Vietnam’s crackdown on civil society is Hoang Thi Minh Hong, another prominent environmental activist who headed the now-disbanded environmental NGO Change. Hong was arrested in June 2023, also for alleged “tax evasion”.[44]

In August 2020, a new decree superseding 2012 rules was passed, significantly tightening restrictions on foreign NGOs in Vietnam. The decree narrows the definition of permitted groups and retains expansive prohibitions against activities that violate Vietnamese “national interests”, “social order”, “social ethics”, “national customs”, “traditions”, or “national unity”, among other provisions.[45] The new decree has been mostly used to impede foreign NGOs’ registration process and narrow their operating space in Vietnam.[46] This has left the NGO community in the country in suspense, with several organisations having to shut down due to the new restrictions.[47]

The authorities have also targeted high-profile activists who could potentially influence public opinion. According to data compiled by The 88 Project, Vietnam had arrested 361 “activists” between 2016 and the first quarter of 2023[48] — more than triple the number of arrests (106) made from 2015 to 2003, when the project began collecting data. The most widely reported case was the detention of Nguy Thi Khanh, Vietnam’s best-known environment advocate and the nation’s first recipient of the esteemed Goldman environmental prize in 2018.[49] Khanh was arrested in February 2022 for alleged tax evasion, a charge that her supporters have dismissed as fabricated. In June 2022, a Vietnamese court sentenced her to two years in prison, which was reduced on appeal to 21 months. Although Khanh was granted early release in May 2023,[50] the case caused deep concern among Vietnam’s civil society organisations, prompting more than 50 Goldman laureates from 41 countries to sign a letter urging the United Nations Human Rights Council to reject Vietnam’s bid to be elected to the body in October 2022.[51]

But such pressure did not suffice to prevent Vietnam from getting elected to a three-year term at the UN body.[52] Indeed, with Vietnam playing an increasingly significant role amidst the great power rivalry, the CPV has enjoyed better leverage in weathering external pressures on its human rights record, particularly from the United States and European Union partners. This dynamic is another crucial factor that has enabled the CPV to continue tightening the public sphere without having to worry about international repercussions.


Both the US and EU have notably softened their approach to human rights issues in recent years, likely due to geopolitical and economic considerations. As the US-China rivalry intensifies, Hanoi has become an increasingly important partner for Washington in Asia. Vietnam has sought to safeguard its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence against China’s growing strategic ambitions, particularly in the South China Sea, making it a natural security partner for the US in its efforts to contain China’s rise. Additionally, Vietnam’s emergence as a regional manufacturing hub has been well-received by Washington, given its desire to diversify its international economic ties and reduce its trade dependence on China.

While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Hanoi in mid-April this year included some symbolic gestures of support for freedom of religion,[53] no public remark was made in response to the Vietnamese court’s sentencing of a prominent blogger to six years in prison hours before his visit.[54] Vietnam arrested another dissident blogger while Blinken was still in Hanoi, yet the US response was muted.[55] Ultimately, Blinken’s visit was the latest testament to Washington’s willingness to go the extra mile to upgrade ties with Hanoi in order to counterbalance China’s growing influence.[56]

Meanwhile, apart from the shared security concern about China, trade has been another key driver of EU’s relations with Vietnam.[57] Most recent data show that Vietnam has been the EU’s most important trading partner in Southeast Asia after Singapore.[58] Vietnam and Singapore are also the only two countries in the region that have concluded a free trade agreement with the EU.[59] Even though differences over human rights have caused temporary setbacks, the EU seems to have prioritized economic considerations over human rights issues.[60] Such pragmatism was on full display in the Union’s ratification of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement in 2020.[61]


A month before being installed as Vietnam’s president in March, Vo Van Thuong stressed the importance of respecting and listening to critical feedback from the intelligentsia.[62] However, the current conservative trajectory of Vietnamese politics suggests that the public sphere is likely to remain restricted until at least 2026, when the 14th CPV Congress will be held and a new leadership elected. This trend will likely deprive the Vietnamese state of an invaluable online feedback loop.

For a country that prizes political stability above all else, silencing all avenues for the public to express their grievances could cause more instability in the long run. As political scientist Martin Dimitrov aptly noted,[63] any regime should be wary when its citizens cease voicing their complaints, as it is indicative of a widespread lack of faith in that state’s legitimacy.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

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).


2023/41 “Vietnam’s Anti-corruption Campaign: Economic and Political Impacts” by Nguyen Khac Giang


Nguyen Phu Trong, a staunch communist theoretician, views corruption as the gravest threat to the regime’s survival. CPV General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong pictured here addressing the opening session of the newly-elected 15th National Assembly’s first parliament session in Hanoi on 20 July 2021. Photo: Nhac NGUYEN/AFP.


  • Vietnam’s current anti-corruption campaign, which led to the forced resignations of the state president and two deputy prime ministers in early 2023, is the most comprehensive anti-corruption effort in the history of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV).
  • The campaign has had some positive impacts on the economy, including reducing the informal costs of doing business, streamlining bureaucratic processes in certain business sectors, and breaking down some entrenched interest groups to create a fairer business environment.
  • However, the campaign has also generated some negative consequences, such as slowdowns in the bureaucratic system and disruptions in critical services such as medical treatment and vehicle registration.
  • The campaign also helps strengthen the dominance of internal affairs institutions in Vietnamese politics and its effects may be felt in the CPV’s succession politics ahead of its 14th National Congress in 2026.

*Nguyen Khac Giang is Visiting Fellow in the Vietnam Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/41, 18 May 2023

Download PDF Version


In early 2023, an unprecedented shake-up in the Vietnamese political landscape unfolded. President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, along with two deputy prime ministers, were forced to resign due to their “political responsibilities” in two corruption scandals that rocked the country in 2022.[1] The Viet A test kit scandal involves the distribution of overpriced COVID-19 test kits,[2] while the repatriation flight scandal centres around exorbitant fees charged to Vietnamese citizens who were stranded abroad during the pandemic and who were seeking to return home.[3] This unprecedented move, with Phuc being the first among top-ranking leaders of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) to resign due to performance reasons since Truong Chinh in 1956, marked a new high in the Party’s anti-corruption campaign, commonly known as the “Blazing Furnace” and overseen by CPV General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong since 2013.

Trong, a staunch communist theoretician, views corruption as the gravest threat to the regime’s survival and has vowed to conduct the campaign “without no-go zones and exceptions”.[4] Over the past decade, nearly 200,000 party members, including 36 Central Committee members and 50 military and police generals, have been disciplined.[5] Most notably, in 2018, Dinh La Thang, the former party chief of Ho Chi Minh City, became the first sitting Politburo member to be criminally charged; he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.[6]

With 7,500 individuals criminally investigated for corruption charges since the CPV’s 13th National Congress in early 2021, including 25 senior officials under the supervision of the Party’s Politburo and Secretariat,[7] the campaign is undoubtedly the most comprehensive effort in the CPV’s history to eradicate “bad roots” and to “purify” the Party, as Trong put it. This article examines the campaign’s key characteristics and its political and economic implications for the country in the short and medium term.


Corruption has been a persistent problem in Vietnam for many years, and is exacerbated by the one-party state’s inherent challenges, such as weak rule of law, lack of transparency and accountability, and a powerful politics-business nexus. Previously, the CPV tended to take a lenient approach to corruption, as it feared that exposing corrupt officials would erode its legitimacy and endanger the regime. As Nguyen Phu Trong once warned, anti-corruption measures must be carried out with caution, as they may lead to “throwing a mouse, breaking a jar” (Ném chuột vỡ bình).[8] As a result, members of the CPV Central Committee were rarely punished for corruption before 2016.

Notable exceptions include the 2006 PMU-18 scandal, which led to the resignation of Transport Minister Dao Dinh Binh (a Central Committee member) and the arrest of his deputy,[9] and the 2002 Nam Cam organized crime case which resulted in the arrest and eventual light sentencing of two other Central Committee members: Vice Minister of Public Security Bui Quoc Huy and Director of Vietnam Television Tran Mai Hanh.[10] In that case, then-Politburo member Truong Tan Sang was reprimanded for his lack of oversight, although he went on to become state president in 2011 when Nguyen Phu Trong was first elected as general secretary.[11]

That election marked a turning point, with Trong initiating a comprehensive overhaul of the country’s anti-corruption efforts. Following his successful re-election at the 12th CPV National Congress in 2016, he further accelerated the process, achieving substantial changes in the way the Party deals with corruption.

First, there has been a clear shift away from using government institutions towards using party institutions to address corruption. In 2013, Trong spearheaded the formation of the CPV-led Central Steering Committee on Anti-Corruption, which replaced the same agency under the government’s management.[12] Additionally, he re-established the Central Internal Affairs Commission, which, along with the Central Inspection Commission, provides the institutional capacity for the CPV to lead the anti-corruption campaign. The Ministry of Public Security, the campaign’s main executioner, has also been put under greater control by the Party chief. In 2016, Trong became the first general secretary to be a standing member of the Central Public Security Party Committee.[13]

Second, under Trong’s direction, the CPV has institutionalized rules and regulations to intensify the fight against corruption. Between 2012 and 2022, the main organs of the CPV issued over 250 documents related to party building and corruption prevention,[14] which were then formalized by other branches of government. Nearly 88,000 documents were issued during this period by ministries, sectors and localities, providing detailed regulations as well as implementation and organization guidance for anti-corruption procedures.[15]

Third, the CPV launched a widespread public awareness campaign against corruption, so that public servants “cannot, do not want to, dare not, and do not need to” (không thể, không muốn, không dám, không cần tham nhũng) commit corruption. This unprecedented campaign has improved public confidence in the CPV leadership and cemented Trong’s political position.[16] The CPV Propaganda Commission claims a 93% support rate for the anti-corruption campaign, though this figure cannot be independently verified.[17]


The anti-corruption campaign has yielded several positive economic impacts. First, according to the 2021 Provincial Competitiveness Index (PCI) survey conducted by the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the rate of businesses paying unofficial fees (i.e. bribes) has dropped significantly from 70% in 2006 to 41.4% in 2021, the lowest level in 16 years.[18] This indicates that the informal costs of doing business in Vietnam have decreased as a result of the campaign.

Second, in conjunction with administrative reforms, the campaign has streamlined processes for businesses and individuals. By cutting red tape, the government has improved the ease of doing business, attracting more investors and fostering economic growth. This is particularly important as Vietnam grows in popularity as a destination for foreign investments amidst the intensifying rivalry between China and the United States.[19]

Furthermore, the anti-corruption campaign has broken down parts of the politics-business nexus, especially in the property sector, thereby fostering a fairer business environment. At the local level, most corruption cases involve the sale of under-priced state-owned land to crony businesses.[20] In 2022, for example, former Binh Duong Party Secretary Tran Van Nam and former Ho Chi Minh City Deputy Party Secretary Tat Thanh Cang, both Central Committee members, were sentenced to seven and six years in prison, respectively, for their part in colluding with businesses to sell state-owned land below market value.[21] By limiting the influence of established interest groups in such cases, the campaign has provided opportunities for smaller businesses to thrive.


Despite the anti-corruption campaign’s successes, its rapid and aggressive approach has also generated negative economic consequences, such as a noticeable slowdown in the administrative process. This is due to public officials becoming anxious about being investigated and shirking their responsibilities. For instance, the disbursement rate of public investment in 2022 reached only 68% of its planned target,[22] and in the first quarter of 2023, more than 90% of central agencies and bodies and 30% of localities had a disbursement rate of under 5%, with 44 central agencies and bodies yet to disburse their funds.[23]

The fear of being drawn into anti-corruption investigations has caused many officials to hesitate in approving projects or licenses, leading to serious business disruptions.[24] For example, after a fatal karaoke bar fire occurred in Binh Duong Province, the Ministry of Public Security introduced tougher fire safety regulations for all businesses. The authorities required all karaoke bars to close until they met the new standards, but many owners complained that even after complying with the regulations, local fire police departments failed to approve their applications, driving them to bankruptcy.[25] In Ho Chi Minh City, only two out of 449 registered karaoke and bar businesses have had their applications approved, with 53 establishments still operating. The rest have gone bankrupt or have had their businesses suspended.[26] The impacts extend beyond the leisure industry, and many industrial manufacturers have also had to halt their operations because of the difficulty of complying with the new rules.[27]

At the same time, since 2020, an extraordinary 40,000 public employees have resigned,[28] amounting to a mass exodus from the bureaucracy. Among them, 89 officials out of around 500 staff left prestigious positions at the Government Office in 2022 alone.[29] Despite efforts to calm unsettled public employees,[30] this trend has persisted, leading to a weakened bureaucracy that affects the quality of policy making as well as the delivery of public services.

The repercussions of this issue go far beyond business and investment. In late 2022 and early 2023, Vietnam struggled with a severe shortage of medical equipment and supplies, mainly due to government officials refusing to approve procurement contracts.[31] Since October 2022, extensive investigations into the field of vehicle inspection services, coupled with the detention of around 400 personnel and vehicle inspectors, have caused the collapse of the automotive inspection system across the country. This breakdown has caused delays to the inspection of hundreds of thousands of vehicles.[32]

The anti-corruption campaign also has a cooling effect on the real estate sector and its related industries, which account for at least 16% of the country’s GDP. [33] Investigations have led to delays for many property development projects,[34] partly because some of the major property developers, such as Tan Hoang Minh, FLC, and Van Thinh Phat, have been targeted by the campaign. The lack of a clear framework for land pricing, coupled with local officials’ reluctance to take responsibility, are the main reasons, accounting for more than 50% of delayed projects.[35] The Ministry of Construction has revealed that the number of real estate companies going bankrupt in Q1/2023 increased 30% year on year, with 1,816 enterprises suspending their business, a 61% year-on-year increase.[36]


Internal affairs (nội chính) institutions, particularly those designed to maintain the Party’s internal stability and control the population, such as the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the Central Internal Affairs Commission (CIAC) and the Central Inspection Commission (CIC), have gained greater political power thanks to the anti-corruption campaign. Notably, the 13th Party Congress saw as many as four of the ten “special exemptions” nominated for Central Committee membership hailing from internal affairs agencies.[37]

MPS, often regarded as the enforcer of the anti-corruption campaign, has been immensely empowered. The 2018 revamp of the police force, intended to consolidate the police establishment, has led to a higher concentration of power in the hands of the minister of public security. At the same time, the estimated budget for MPS has seen a steady increase, rising from VND73.6 trillion (US$3.3 billion) in 2016 to VND 96.15 trillion (US$4.37 billion) in 2021.[38] With the departure of Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Pham Binh Minh, five out of the remaining 16 Politburo members now have police backgrounds.[39] General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong considers MPS the “sword and shield” of the regime.[40]

In 2007, the CIAC had been subsumed into the Central Office of the CPV. It was however reinstated by Trong in 2013 in an effort to strengthen the anti-corruption drive. Since then, CIAC has become increasingly important in executing and overseeing anti-corruption initiatives. In 2020, the CPV Central Committee decided to elevate CIAC from a consultative body to an “operational institution” that specializes in the Party’s internal affairs and designated it as the “permanent agency” responsible for administering the Central Steering Committee on Anti-Corruption. The current leader of CIAC, Phan Dinh Trac, is the first CIAC head since 1976 to hold Politburo membership. This appointment is expected to set a precedent for future Party congresses.

The CIC serves as the primary agency responsible for supervising, inspecting and sanctioning wrongdoing by party members at all levels. During Nguyen Phu Trong’s tenure, CIC’s influence has grown significantly, as demonstrated by the numerous meetings held over the last three terms to discuss and announce disciplinary measures against senior party officials. In the 11th term (2011-16), CIC convened 37 meetings, and this number increased to 50 in the 12th term (2016-21). Over the past two years since the start of 13th term in early 2021, CIC has already held 28 meetings. CIC wields considerable power in deciding which cases are to be investigated and to what extent. According to one party insider, CIC is seen as the “guillotine” that instils fear in both state and party bureaucrats.[41]

As internal affairs institutions gain strength, technocratic agencies in the government such as the Government’s Office and economic ministries appear to be losing power. President Nguyen Xuan Phuc as well as Deputy Prime Ministers Pham Binh Minh and Vu Duc Dam were considered significant technocrats, but they have been replaced by less experienced party loyalists (Vo Van Thuong, Tran Hong Ha, and Tran Luu Quang, respectively). Initially, the military saw a boost in influence during the 13th Congress, but they have since been dealt a heavy blow by the anti-corruption campaign, with 20 generals being disciplined since 2016.[42]

Moreover, the institutional modifications implemented as part of the anti-corruption crusade are expected to have a major impact on Vietnam’s political landscape. The success of these measures is now seen as a key indicator of the performance of party secretaries,[43] leading provincial authorities and other party-state entities to prioritize internal affairs over other duties, such as economic development.

While it is easy to establish the predominance of internal affairs institutions, reversing this trend will be a formidable challenge once the leadership opts to temper the “Blazing Furnace”. The authoritarian inclination of the country’s political system is a worrying development in the long run, as it does not allow for independent voices on corruption issues. In late 2021, Towards Transparency, the Vietnam affiliate of Transparency International, a well-respected global NGO focused on combating corruption, was forced to close its Vietnam office due to security concerns.[44]

In the medium term, the anti-corruption campaign has major implications for the upcoming 14th Party Congress in 2026. The campaign has already removed two potential candidates for the top four positions, Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Pham Binh Minh, while providing opportunities for party loyalists such as Vo Van Thuong and Vuong Dinh Hue. It is likely that leaders of security and disciplinary agencies, including Minister of Public Security To Lam, CIAC Head Phan Dinh Trac, and CIC Chairman Tran Cam Tu, will be strong contenders for leadership roles in 2026.


Vietnam’s ambitious anti-corruption campaign has yielded both positive and negative outcomes. While successful in reducing corruption to some extent, the campaign has also led to significant disruptions in the bureaucracy, resulting in an atmosphere of unease in the political landscape. To improve confidence in private businesses, foreign investors and public officials, the relevant authorities will need to take immediate and targeted actions.

First, the party-state must prioritize rebuilding the effectiveness and accountability of its bureaucracy by increasing public salaries. Currently, the baseline monthly salary for a public employee is only VND1.8 million (US$80), and even the top leaders of the Party and government earn a mere VND23.4 million (US$1,060) per month in official salaries.[45] These meagre incomes make it difficult to incentivize top talents to stay in the system and contribute to the country’s growth, or to prevent corrupt practices.

Second, the anti-corruption campaign must be accompanied by a sound and transparent legal framework to guide the efforts, ensuring that they are conducted in a just and impartial manner. This is essential as the campaign risks becoming a witch hunt that can be exploited for political objectives and that can stifle creativity and progress within the regime. It is important to bear in mind that the Doi Moi reforms of the 1980s were inspired by various “fence-breaking” practices that could in the current political context be labelled as “economic mismanagement”. 

Lastly, harsh punishment alone cannot solve corruption in closed political systems like Vietnam’s. To effectively address this issue, the CPV must undertake a more comprehensive process of political reform that addresses the root causes of corruption, promotes transparency and accountability within the party itself, and provides opportunities for civil society, the media and the public to contribute. Solving corruption is not something the party alone can accomplish.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

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).


2023/33 “Forgiving Without Forgetting: Vietnam’s Peace Diplomacy over South Korean Atrocities in the Vietnam War” by Phan Xuan Dung


In December 2022, Vietnam and South Korea agreed to elevate their 30-year-old ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Screenshot from Arirang News on YouTube, 5 December 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fDVCFMGMaA reporting on the development of a deeper relationship between both countries.


  • South Korea’s participation in the Vietnam War was marked by various atrocities, including massacres and sexual violence against thousands of Vietnamese civilians.
  • Despite South Korea’s refusal to acknowledge these atrocities, Vietnam’s peace diplomacy — which involves shelving historical issues to promote cooperative and peaceful interactions with former foes — allowed for bilateral relations to flourish.
  • At the same time, Vietnam has allowed local commemoration of Korean massacres and, on rare occasions, challenged South Korea’s contentious historical narratives.
  • Vietnam’s peace diplomacy towards South Korea is under strain, given Vietnamese victims’ growing demand for accountability and acknowledgement from the South Korean government.
  • To encourage South Korea’s acknowledgement and rectification of past atrocities, Vietnam needs to frame the issue as an area for collaboration and establish an organisation to represent and support the victims.  

* Phan Xuan Dung is a research officer in the Vietnam Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/33, 25 April 2023

Download PDF Version


In December 2022, Vietnam and South Korea agreed to elevate their 30-year-old ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership based on the spirit of “heading towards a bright future”.[1] However, this promise was soon tested when, on 7 February 2023, the Seoul Central District Court ordered the South Korean government to pay 30 million won (US$23,730) in compensation to Nguyen Thi Thanh, a Vietnamese woman who survived a massacre committed by Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War.[2] Thanh had previously filed a lawsuit against the South Korean government in 2020, testifying that Korean marine soldiers killed her family members and shot her in the stomach as they attacked the Phong Nhat – Phong Nhi village in Quang Nam Province in 1968.

This ruling is significant as it marks the first legal acknowledgement of Korean troops’ atrocities during the Vietnam War. However, South Korea’s Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup quickly denied that Korean troops committed massacres in Vietnam, and the South Korean government filed an appeal.[3] In response, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed deep regret, calling on Seoul to respect historical truth and take practical steps to address the consequences of war.[4] Hanoi also stressed that its policy of “shelving the past and looking towards the future” does not mean denying “the truth or history”.

This policy of “shelving the past and looking towards the future” is a reflection of Vietnam’s long tradition of ngoại giao hòa mục, hòa hiếu (peace diplomacy). Despite a long history of wars with foreign powers, Vietnam has typically avoided humiliating defeated adversaries or politicising war legacies. Instead, it has prioritised restoring and maintaining peaceful and harmonious bilateral relations to foster conducive conditions for national development.[5] Such an approach undergirded Vietnam’s resumption of diplomatic ties with the United States and its allies, including South Korea in 1992.[6] But as the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ recent statement connotes, Vietnam has forgiven but not forgotten South Korea’s past aggression, trying to balance between moving beyond the past and pushing back against South Korea’s denial of past misdeeds. This predicament will likely worsen as the issue of Korean atrocities resurfaces in the wake of Thanh’s lawsuit.

This article first provides an overview of South Korea’s atrocities during the Vietnam War, followed by an analysis of Vietnam’s peace diplomacy towards South Korea and a discussion of Vietnamese victims’ quest for justice. It concludes by providing recommendations on how Vietnam can encourage South Korea’s cooperation in addressing this war legacy.


Between 1965 and 1973, the Republic of Korea (ROK) deployed 320,000 troops to support the U.S.-backed South Vietnam in their fight against communist North Vietnam. Then, under President Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian rule, South Korea was motivated to demonstrate its commitment to the anti-communist cause in order to obtain American security assurances and financial aid to bolster the country’s economic development.[7]

Despite the South Korean government’s glorification of its participation in the war as a valiant defence against communist aggression, eyewitness accounts and historical materials have revealed a multitude of brutal acts committed by the ROK Army. In 1999, activist Ku Su-jeong and journalist Koh Kyoung-tae published a series of articles in Hankyoreh 21, a monthly South Korean magazine, that exposed the atrocities committed by Korean troops, including civilian massacres, sexual violence, and the burning of houses, through photographic evidence and survivor interviews. Ku Su-jeong also initiated the “Sorry, Vietnam” campaign, a grassroots movement that aimed to acknowledge and apologise for the harm caused by South Korea’s participation in the war.

South Korean activists and researchers have been striving to accurately identify the number of Vietnamese victims of the ROK Army. At the 2000 Jeju Human Rights Academic Conference, Ku Su-jeong reported that there were approximately 80 cases of civilian mass killings, resulting in around 9,000 deaths.[8] Two decades later, South Korean civil society’s search for more victims and Hankyoreh 21’s field reports released new figures, indicating 130 massacres and up to 10,000 deaths. Notable atrocities include the slaughter of 430 civilians in Binh Hoa Village (Quang Ngai Province), 74 in Phong Nhi – Phong Nhat villages (Quang Nam Province), and 135 in Ha My Village (Quang Nam Province).[9]

Additionally, there are accounts of Korean soldiers’ sexual violence, with up to 10,000 Vietnamese women and girls being abducted, sold, raped, and coerced into prostitution.[10] It is estimated that about 800 of them are still alive today, and tens of thousands of children were born as a result of these Korean sexual assaults. These children are referred to as Lai Đại Hàn (mixed Korean parentage).[11]

The South Korean government has long denied allegations of war crimes committed by its troops during the Vietnam War and has refused to investigate them. Moreover, the Ministry of Defense and the National Intelligence Service have repeatedly blocked access to records related to South Korean troops’ operations in the war.[12] Several South Korean liberal presidents have expressed regrets for the suffering caused by their country’s involvement in the war,[13]  but have fallen short of acknowledging any Korean atrocities. Nonetheless, Vietnam’s peace diplomacy has prevented the issue from becoming a source of tension between the two countries.


With the onset of Đổi Mới economic reform in 1986 and the collapse of the Soviet-led communist bloc in the early 1990s, Vietnam recognised the need to diversify its external affairs in order to attract foreign investments for economic revitalisation. As such, Vietnam actively sought to normalise relations with former adversaries, with South Korea being a priority due to its impressive economic achievements and intention to expand to Southeast Asian markets.[14] During the negotiations for bilateral normalisation, some Vietnamese leaders voiced critical views of South Korea.[15] For example, in a visit to Seoul in 1991, then-Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Vu Khoan mentioned “the guilt of the South Korean army” in relation to the Vietnamese people.[16] However, these sentiments did not impede the negotiation process.

In fact, Vietnam’s urgent need to establish cooperation with South Korea to promote economic development led Vietnamese leaders to become more flexible with their demands. For example, in 1991, Vietnam demanded war reparations from South Korea during the first round of negotiations. However, when South Korea rejected this request, Vietnamese leaders softened their stance in the second meeting in 1992. Instead, they proposed that South Korea provide official development assistance (ODA) and increase economic cooperation to help alleviate the resentment of Vietnamese people hurt by Korean wartime actions.[17]

Since bilateral normalisation in 1992, Vietnam has put the issue of Korean involvement in the Vietnam War on the back burner. During a meeting with South Korea’s then-Foreign Minister Lee Sang-ok in 1992, Vietnam’s then-Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet noted the Vietnamese people’s animosity towards South Korea’s participation in the war, yet he also remarked that “[i]t was only a very short period of time and irrelevant to the will of the people.”[18] He therefore suggested that both countries focus on the future instead of dwelling on the past. In 2000, when asked about the alleged South Korean war crimes, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded that “South Korean troops committed crimes against Vietnamese people. With humanitarian and peaceful neighbourly traditions, it is Vietnam’s policy to put the past aside.”[19]

As a result, South Korea was able to invest in Vietnam without facing the consequences of its wartime actions, while Hanoi received the much-needed financial aid for economic development. Over the past three decades, bilateral ties between the two former foes have flourished, with South Korea now being one of Vietnam’s top foreign investors and ODA providers. They recently set ambitious goals of increasing their bilateral trade turnover to US$100 billion by 2023 and US$150 billion by 2030.[20] South Korean chaebols such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai, and Lotte have a major influence on Vietnam’s economy. In northern Vietnam alone, Samsung has invested about US$20 billion into various projects, making up around 13.6% of Vietnam’s total industrial output value in 2022.[21]

Vietnam has also been receptive of South Korean humanitarian aid given to communities affected by war legacies. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) implemented a scheme to allocate significant resources towards assisting several provinces in central Vietnam.[22] By 2002, this initiative had resulted in the construction of around 40 new schools and multiple hospitals in regions where large numbers of civilians had been killed by the ROK Army, even though the aid was officially designated to serve any area in Vietnam in need of these facilities.[23] The KOICA-sponsored program could be seen as an attempt by South Korea to ease Vietnam’s lingering resentment about its atrocities without officially admitting responsibility.

More recently, from 2018 to 2021, KOICA provided approximately US$20 million under the Korea-Vietnam Mine Action Project (KVMAP) to remove unexploded ordinance (UXO) and support UXO victims in Binh Dinh and Quang Binh provinces.[24] In 2022, building upon the successes of KVMAP, KOICA partnered with the Vietnam office of the United Nations Development Programme to implement the Korea-Vietnam Peace Villages Project (KVPVP) in three central provinces — Binh Dinh, Quang Ngai, and Thua-Thien Hue.[25] KVPVP involves removing UXO, supporting UXO victims, and helping their communities attain sustainable development and climate change resilience. With a budget of US$25 million from KOICA, KVPVP will run from 2022 to 2026.

Although the Vietnamese government avoids revisiting South Korea’s past aggression, it does allow for local commemoration of massacres committed by Korean soldiers. Memorial monuments have been erected, and annual commemoration ceremonies are organised in the places where the atrocities occurred.[26] State media reports on these activities, as well as stories of South Koreans coming to Vietnam to pay respect to the victims.[27]

Vietnam has also occasionally rebuked Korean accounts of the war. For example, in 2017, Hanoi objected to South Korea’s then-President Moon Jae-in’s remarks honouring South Korean veterans who had fought in Vietnam.[28] More recently, in October 2022, Vietnamese authorities demanded that Netflix Vietnam take down the Korean drama series “Little Women”, citing historical inaccuracies, which had been criticised by Vietnamese netizens as an offensive glorification of Korea’s role in the Vietnam War.[29] However, in both instances, the Vietnamese government did not explicitly mention Korean atrocities or their victims. Vietnam’s objection to South Korean narratives seemed to be driven more by the desire to avoid humiliation than by concerns for the victims whom South Korea had never acknowledged.

This is further evidenced by two other lesser-known incidents, in which Vietnam quietly compromised in the realm of commemoration, in order to avoid upsetting South Korea. In 2000, a monument funded by South Korean veterans was built in Ha My village to commemorate victims of a Korean massacre in 1968. The monument initially contained a statement that incriminated Park Chung-hee’s troops. However, the ROK embassy in Hanoi requested its removal, and Vietnamese authorities acquiesced.[30] They invoked Vietnam’s official slogan of “shelving the past without forgetting it” in justifying the need to erase the statement to Ha My villagers.[31]

In 2016, the “Vietnam Pieta”, or “Last Lullaby”, a miniature version of a sculpture created by two South Korean artists to honour mothers and children killed by Korean soldiers, was donated to the Da Nang Museum. Initially, the sculpture was intended to be a memorial installation in Vietnam, but the Vietnamese government ultimately turned down the proposal, reportedly due to pressure from the South Korean government.[32]

Vietnam can be seen as struggling to balance between shelving the past and acknowledging the sufferings of its citizens during the war. Ultimately, due to its need for South Korea’s economic cooperation, Vietnam has largely refrained from confronting South Korea on its past atrocities. But such an exercise of peace diplomacy is becoming increasingly tenuous as certain Vietnamese victims continue their quest for justice.


In recent years, some survivors of Korean atrocities have asserted their agency in shaping memories of the war. One of them is Nguyen Thi Thanh, who had been fighting for justice even before the 2020 lawsuit. In 2018, Thanh and another survivor testified at the People’s Tribunal on War Crimes by South Korean Troops during the Vietnam War, which demanded that the South Korean government compensate the plaintiffs and launch a thorough investigation into the allegations.[33] A year later, 102 survivors joined Thanh in submitting a petition to the South Korean government, demanding a formal apology and reparations. However, the South Korean Ministry of Defence rejected the petition, claiming that there was no proof of any misdeeds committed by its troops.[34] Subsequently, Thanh sued the South Korean government in 2020 after exhausting all other options to get its attention.

In addition, survivors of sexual violence perpetrated by Korean troops have come forward to share their stories. One of them was Tran Thi Ngai, who was 24 when a Korean soldier stormed into her house and raped her. In 2015, eighty-one-year-old Ngai, along with other rape victims, wrote a letter to then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye, urging her administration to apologise and provide reparations.[35] That same year, another victim started an online petition on Change.org with the same demands, gathering more than 34,000 signatures.[36] Many Lai Đại Hàn descendants are also seeking justice from the South Korean government. Notably, Tran Dai Nhat, son of Tran Thi Ngai, founded the “Justice for Lai Đại Hàn” campaign to urge South Korea to acknowledge both the sexual violence experienced by Vietnamese women and the tens of thousands of children born as a result of rapes by Korean soldiers.[37]

All these victim-led movements share the common goals of recognition, truth-seeking, and restoration of the victims’ dignity. For decades, the Vietnamese government’s lack of support and South Korea’s refusal to accept responsibility have left these survivors with little recourse. But Thanh’s recent legal victory has created a legal precedent that might offer hope and inspiration for more victims to follow suit.


In light of Seoul’s continued denial of responsibility and the growing demand for justice from the victims, Hanoi needs to confront the issue rather than ignore it. However, taking a confrontational stance against its newest comprehensive strategic partner is not a realistic option, given Vietnam’s weaker bargaining position. Instead, Vietnam should channel its peace diplomacy towards encouraging South Korea to come to terms with the past.

Vietnam has a long history of successfully addressing complex war legacy issues, especially in its relations with the United States.[38] The U.S. has come to appreciate that resolving war legacy issues was critical for a complete and mutually beneficial relationship with Vietnam.[39] This was exemplified by America’s shift from denying the health effects of Agent Orange used in Vietnam to providing assistance to Vietnamese people with “disabilities that may be related to the use of Agent Orange”.[40] Persistent lobbying efforts by key Vietnamese and American actors from both the private and public sectors played a key role in changing Washington’s stance on the issue.[41]

Drawing from these lessons, two factors could help mitigate the bargaining power imbalance between Vietnam and South Korea. First, Vietnam should frame resolving historical issues with South Korea as an area for future-oriented cooperation. For instance, Vietnam could signal to South Korea that addressing war legacies is a prerequisite for a stronger bilateral defence partnership, as they have done vis-à-vis the U.S.[42] Additionally, Vietnam could point to the ongoing cooperation with South Korea in clearing UXO and providing support to UXO victims as an example of how addressing war legacies can be beneficial for the relationship.

Second, the establishment of a Vietnam Association for Victims of War Atrocities (VAVWA),[43] akin to the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange, is necessary for empowering the victims. By providing a platform for survivors to connect and share their experiences, VAVWA could raise domestic and international awareness of the issue, thereby indirectly putting pressure on the South Korean government. VAVWA could collaborate with victims’ allies in South Korea, such as Democratic Party lawmaker Kang Min-jung, who has been spearheading a bill with 24 other lawmakers to create a special investigation committee on the atrocities committed by the ROK Army against Vietnamese civilians.[44] Furthermore, cooperation with South Korean civil society groups involved in the matter is also crucial, as they have played a significant role in raising awareness in South Korea, fostering people-to-people reconciliation, and amplifying the voice of victims like Thanh.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

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).


2023/25 “Vietnam’s Social Insurance Dilemma and Workers’ Precarious Conditions” by Tu Phuong Nguyen


A gas station employee pumps gasoline into the petrol tank of a customer’s motorcycle in Hanoi on 10 March 2022. Photo: Nhac NGUYEN/AFP.


  • The growing trend of young employees choosing to withdraw their social insurance premiums early has been a major challenge to Vietnam’s social insurance system. Those who choose to do so give up their pensions and the accompanying free public health insurance when they retire in the future.
  • Factors such as employees’ livelihood, job prospects, perception of social insurance benefits, and lack of trust in the state’s management of the social insurance fund all have an impact on their decision to withdraw their social insurance premiums.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the precarious living and working conditions of many factory workers in the export sectors, evidenced by the surging number of claims for social insurance withdrawals. With their low and unstable incomes, many of these workers view their social insurance premiums as a form of savings, and have no choice but to seek early access to this money during times of financial hardship.
  • The government is revising the social insurance law to keep people in the social insurance system for longer; however, the potential effects of the revision remain unclear. Changes to the social insurance system should go hand in hand with labour relations reforms and improved social policies that empower workers and support their livelihood.

* Tu Phuong Nguyen is a member of the Stretton Institute, The University of Adelaide, Australia.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/25, 11 April 2023

Download PDF Version


Article 3.1 of Vietnam’s 2014 Law on Social Insurance defines social insurance as “the guarantee to fully or partially offset an employee’s income that is reduced or lost due to their sickness, maternity, workplace accident, occupational disease, retirement or death”.[1] All employees with labour contracts are entitled to the compulsory social insurance scheme, whereby employers and employees must contribute a certain amount to employees’ insurance premiums. Social insurance, which is the largest component of these premiums, mainly covers pensions and maternity benefits. Employees are also entitled to unemployment and health insurance. The contribution is calculated based on the individual employee’s basic wage and other forms of regular monthly payments. All participants’ social insurance premiums are centrally managed through the state’s social insurance fund.

To be eligible for the pension, an employee must contribute to the social insurance fund for at least 20 years. People who have contributed to the scheme for less than 20 years do not qualify for the pension, but are entitled to access their social insurance benefits as a lump sum. The law stipulates certain conditions in which employees can withdraw their social insurance premiums early, including when they (1) move overseas, (2) are diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, and (3) resign and cease contributions to the social insurance fund for a period of one year. According to official statistics, the third condition has been cited in more than 98 per cent of all social insurance withdrawal requests.[2]

In 2014, the Vietnamese government attempted to implement an amendment to the social insurance law which would have required employees to wait until retirement (at age 55 for women and 60 for men) to receive their pension. This change, intended to provide welfare protection for employees in the long run, was met with protests from thousands of workers in industrial regions in southern Vietnam.[3] Following dialogues with workers and legislative debates, the government reversed the amendment and allowed employees to withdraw their social insurance premiums one year after they quit their jobs, as before.

Subsequent to this, the number of people choosing to withdraw their social insurance premiums has been steadily increasing. From 2016 to 2021, the system welcomed an additional 4.23 million participants, but it also had 4.06 million people leaving.[4] On average, the number of lodgements for social insurance withdrawal increased by about 9 per cent each year.[5] In 2021, a record number of more than 960,000 people lodged their claims for social insurance withdrawals. Those who claimed such money were mostly aged below 40 and work in non-state sectors.[6] Fifty-five per cent of the claims were made by women.

As pension is a key pillar of social insurance benefits, the growing opt-out rate from social insurance potentially puts a greater burden on the state to provide care and support for people who have no source of income in their old age. This growing trend poses a key challenge to Vietnam’s social insurance system.


Several factors, such as employees’ livelihood, job prospects, perception of social insurance benefits, and lack of trust in the state’s management of the social insurance fund, have contributed to this trend.

Although official statistics are unavailable, media reports and previous research suggest that many who apply for social insurance withdrawals are factory workers employed in key export sectors such as garment, footwear, and other processing industries.[7] These workers, especially those with low incomes, need the money from the social insurance fund to help them overcome their financial hardship. A survey by Vietnam’s Institute of Workers and Trade Unions showed that 30 per cent of workers have no savings and often need to borrow money to pay for household expenses.[8] As a result, many low-income workers have come to view their social insurance premiums as a form of savings, and are more likely to seek early access to it when their income is reduced or when extra household expenses arise.[9] In most of the cases, the withdrawn funds are used to settle household debts and pay for children’s care and education, medical bills, and housing. Some workers, who are either exhausted from years of factory work or have lost their jobs, may use the money to help them start anew, switch to informal work, or invest in a family business or small-scale trading activities.[10]

Besides the individual living circumstances of workers, weak government regulation and lack of transparency in the management of the social insurance fund also explain why people choose to leave the social insurance system.[11] Reports of persistent legal evasion and violations of workers’ social insurance rights are common, with the most serious issue being employers failing to submit their and their employees’ contributions to the state’s social insurance fund, despite deducting employees’ contributions from their monthly wages.[12] For many years, the state-managed social insurance fund has had a deficit, reaching a record high of more than VND13 trillion (US$554 million) in 2016.[13] Sceptical of the state’s capacity to manage their social insurance money and to provide insurance and pension payments in the long run, workers who face financial difficulties prefer to withdraw their social insurance premiums and forgo their pension.

Following its failure in 2014 to pass a legal amendment that would prevent employees from withdrawing social insurance premiums early, the government has sought to raise awareness on the disadvantages of early withdrawal and the benefits of pension. Employees who choose to take out their social insurance premiums early are portrayed by government officials as “only thinking about their short-term needs”.[14]  Plenty of news articles have included the catchphrase “short-term benefits, long-term disadvantages” (lợi trước mắt, thiệt lâu dài) to refer to the consequences of early withdrawal and its threat to employees’ future welfare.[15]

The media discourse on this matter has slightly shifted following the outbreak of COVID-19, coming to recognise how many workers’ precarious conditions had pushed them to withdraw their social insurance premiums. This was especially evident in 2022 when there were long queues of workers waiting outside social insurance offices in Ho Chi Minh City since dawn to lodge their claims.[16] Many had lost their jobs during the pandemic and had to resort to informal work to make ends meet. Even though the act of early withdrawal is still viewed in a negative light, the media discourse has demonstrated sympathy towards those who have no choice but to count on their social insurance money to cope with their financial burdens.[17] A union official suggested that more than 80 per cent of those who withdrew their social insurance premiums had no emergency savings for difficult times.[18]

Indeed, employment in some of Vietnam’s key export sectors has become increasingly precarious in recent years. As the country pursues an export-oriented policy, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been created each year in the garment, footwear, and other processing industries. This has allowed many people from rural areas to move to industrialising regions and cities, earning an income that can help them and their families escape poverty. However, these sectors are exposed to global market fluctuations and disruptions, which can lead to supplier factories closing down or cutting costs and reducing their labour force. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were cases of foreign-owned factories suddenly closing down and their foreign bosses fleeing Vietnam, leaving their workers unpaid and without their social insurance payments.[19] With weak bargaining power,[20] workers are increasingly vulnerable to reduced workplace benefits, short-term contracts, casualisation, and redundancies.[21] Certain groups, such as pregnant workers, those caring for young children, and elderly workers, are even more susceptible to discrimination due to assumptions about their declining productivity.[22]

In terms of living conditions, numerous reports have raised concerns about workers’ economic struggles.[23] The minimum wage in high-growth regions, such as Ha Noi and Ho Chi Minh City, currently stands at approximately US$200 a month, a 6 per cent increase from the 2020 minimum wage.[24] However, a former leader of the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour, the only trade union in Vietnam, suggested that the minimum wage still falls short of the minimum living needs of workers by 15 per cent.[25] In actuality, workers usually earn more than the minimum wage, but this discrepancy mostly comes from excessive overtime. In 2021, it was estimated that the average income in Ho Chi Minh City still fell short of a liveable income by 12 per cent.[26] The living conditions of rural-to-urban migrant workers are particularly difficult as they face extra costs such as rent and higher utility bills, while facing barriers in accessing services like healthcare, childcare, and their children’s schooling in the provinces and cities they move to.[27] Disruptions and uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have made workers’ lives even more precarious.[28]

Although the Vietnamese economy has shown positive signs of recovery after the pandemic, many jobs in the export sectors, especially garment and footwear industries, have been severely impacted by weak consumer demand in key export destinations such as the United States and Europe.[29] This has led to the closure and downsizing of numerous factories in southern Vietnam, resulting in an estimated loss of 34,000 jobs and a reduction in working hours for 600,000 workers, leading to a decrease in their income.[30] If affected workers are unable to secure employment or a stable income within a year, it is likely that many of them will consider withdrawing their social insurance premiums to alleviate their financial stress. 


Early withdrawal of social insurance premiums is currently a critical issue in the Vietnamese government’s reform agenda regarding the social insurance law. The government has proposed several measures to limit early withdrawals and encourage more employees to accumulate their contributions towards their pension. The first proposal reduces the amount of money that a person can withdraw early: only their own contribution would be available, while the employer’s contributions would remain with the state.[31] In case an individual is unable to re-join the social insurance system in the future, the employer’s contributions would be used to partially cover their pension. This proposal seeks to discourage early withdrawals and keep people in the social insurance system for longer. However, it does not take into account the precarious situation of many factory workers who have come to view social insurance money as their savings, and who may be desperate to access the money to sustain themselves and their families. Even though this proposal does not strip employees of their right to withdraw social insurance money, as was the case with the overturned legal amendment in 2014, it could still be met with resistance from workers if passed into law. The draft law,[32] circulated for public consultation in March 2023, includes this proposal while retaining the current regulation as an alternative.

The second proposal lowers the eligibility requirement for the pension.[33] Evaluating the potential effects of this proposal is more complicated, considering that workers’ circumstances vary. Currently, an employee is eligible for the pension if they have contributed to the social insurance fund for at least 20 years and have reached the legal retirement age (55 for women and 60 for men). This proposal lowers the minimum requirements from 20 years to 15 years, and eventually to 10 years in the long term, with the intention of making pensions more attainable.

To those employees who join the social insurance system at a later age, this proposal would give them a better chance of being eligible for the pension. It also acknowledges the reality that the total employment time of factory workers in certain manufacturing sectors is often not long. For instance, companies in the garment and footwear industries have been known to find ways to lay off elderly workers (meaning those over 35 years old),[34] leaving them disadvantaged in the labour market and struggling to find new employment. Because it is difficult for workers in these industries to accumulate 20 years of social insurance contribution, lowering the minimum requirements for social insurance contribution would enable more people to access the pension, and make pensions more appealing overall.

This proposal nonetheless overlooks other issues concerning workers’ circumstances and their lack of trust in the social insurance system. Many workers choose not to wait for the pension not just because of the requirement regarding the minimum years of contribution, but also because they must wait until their retirement to access their money. A typical female worker in the garment industry, for example, can start working in her early 20s, if not before. If she keeps on working and contributing to the social insurance fund, she will reach the minimum years required for the pension in her 40s, yet she has to wait until she is 55 to receive the pension. In reality, many workers do not plan to work in the factory until their retirement, as their health and productivity tend to get worse after years of intensive and hard labour. A union official at Pou Yuen, the largest footwear company in Ho Chi Minh City, has observed that about 500 to 600 senior workers, especially those who are 40 years old and above, quit every year.[35] According to the current regulation, once an employee’s social insurance contributions have exceeded the threshold of pension eligibility, they are not able to withdraw social insurance premiums as a lump sum and have to wait until their retirement to receive the pension. At Pou Yuen, some workers have resigned from their jobs a few months before the total period of their contributions would have reached 20 years, in order to avoid having their social insurance premiums “locked” in the system.

The draft law reduces the minimum period of pension eligibility from 20 years to 15 years. However, employees would still be able to withdraw social insurance premiums if the total period of their contributions is less than 20 years. This means that those who have accumulated from 15 to 20 years of contributions are eligible for the pension and still able to withdraw their social insurance premiums if they wish to. It is unclear whether the legal amendment will keep people, especially factory workers, in the system for longer. Given that violations of social insurance law are still common, and factory workers generally remain sceptical of the state’s ability to manage the social insurance fund, workers with precarious conditions would still choose to withdraw their social insurance premiums when necessary.

Since industrial workers are the key targets and beneficiaries of social insurance law, it is important that any future reforms take into account their views and circumstances, particularly their precarious working and living conditions. Strengthening law enforcement and ensuring better protection of workers’ social insurance rights will be crucial to raising workers’ trust in the state’s management of the social insurance fund. Future reforms of the social insurance system should be coupled with improved social policies and labour relations reforms that support workers’ livelihoods and grant them a greater voice in the collective bargaining process.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

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).


“Tides of Insecurity: Vietnam and the Growing Challenge from Non-traditional Maritime Threats” by Phan Xuan Dung and To Minh Son



2023/4 “What to Expect from the Vietnam–South Korea Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” by Huynh Tam Sang


National Assembly Chairman Vuong Dinh Hue holding talks with Speaker of the Republic of Korea National Assembly Kim Jin-pyo in Hanoi on 17 January 2022. Screen capture from video. Source: Vietnam News Agency on Facebook, https://fb.watch/i8JQd6LGCv/, 17 January 2022.


  • Strengthened mutual trust, growing people-to-people ties, and robust economic cooperation are principal assets guiding Vietnam – South Korea relations today.
  • While bilateral economic cooperation has achieved significant milestones, defence ties remain relatively modest.
  • Vietnam and South Korea have the leverage to strengthen ties further thanks to the comprehensive strategic partnership inked in December 2022. To keep the relationship moving forward, Seoul and Hanoi should collaborate closely and develop concrete plans for advancing their cooperation under the new framework.
  • The two countries should further collaborate in multilateral fora and reframe their relationship as middle powers joining hands to forge multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific, develop resilient supply chains for their key industries and boost arms transfer and naval cooperation.

*Huynh Tam Sang is Lecturer at the Faculty of International Relations, Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, and Research Fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation.

ISEAS Perspective 2023/4, 30 January 2023

Download PDF Version


Vietnam–Korea relations have a long history. Records of early interactions between the two peoples date back to the 13th century when Vietnamese Prince Ly Long Tuong of the Ly Dynasty migrated to Korea and joined forces with the ruling Goryo Dynasty of Korea to fight against two Mongolian invasions.[1] From the 16th to the 19th century, Korean and Vietnamese envoys exchanged poems during tributary missions to Ming-Qing China.[2] During the colonial period, patriotic intellectuals and revolutionaries from Korea and Vietnam conducted exchanges and published books on the history of their nations “to learn lessons and to enlighten their peoples” while sharing “sympathies as enslaved peoples”.[3]

During the Cold War, Korea and Vietnam were both victims of great-power politics. Korea was divided into North and South in 1953, and Vietnam underwent the same fate in 1954, shortly after which the Vietnam War began. The Vietnam War was a tragic watershed in the relations between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Vietnam. From 1964 to 1973, South Korea—as an American ally—deployed over 300,000 troops to Vietnam to fight alongside the US against North Vietnam.[4] Hostilities persisted even after the war ended in April 1975. In July 1978, diplomats from South Korea, North Korea and Vietnam engaged in trilateral negotiations on the release of three South Korean diplomats still detained in Saigon.[5] These failed, and the issue was only resolved in April 1980.

Despite the lack of official engagements, South Korea’s economic success began to catch Vietnam’s attention in the late 1980s. With the launch of the Đổi Mới (Renovation) policy in 1986, Vietnam became interested in studying the South Korean experience in development. At a CPV Central Committee meeting in April 1986, Truong Chinh, then-Chairman of the State Council, expressed deep appreciation for South Korea, which, according to him, “became an industrialized country despite gaining little FDI inflows”.[6] In 1988, the Vietnamese Central Institute for Economic Management published a book titled “The South Korean Economy”, lauding Seoul’s industrialization model.

On the diplomatic front, the 1988 Seoul Olympics Games facilitated the ROK-Vietnam rapprochement by allowing a Vietnamese delegation to conduct unofficial exchanges with their South Korean counterparts. Thanks to “Olympics diplomacy” and the visits of Vietnamese officials such as Nguyen Xuan Oanh, Chairman of the Economic Office under Ho Chi Minh City Party Secretary (Văn phòng Kinh tế của Bí thư Thành ủy),[7] and Vu Tuan, Vietnam’s Minister of Light Industry, to South Korea from 1987 to 1989, bilateral relations became warmer. In 1990, the two countries began full-scale negotiations toward diplomatic normalization.

However, Vietnam’s military intervention in Cambodia remained a major hurdle. The then-South Korean Foreign Minister, Lee Sang-ok, stated that a political settlement of the Cambodian issue should be achieved before the normalization of bilateral relations could happen.[8] Seoul’s concern dissipated after the Paris Peace Agreement on Cambodia was signed in 1991. Several subsequent developments were also conducive to the ROK-Vietnam relations. These were the Sino-Vietnamese diplomatic normalization achieved in November 1991, the positive progress in US-Vietnam ties,[9] and the improved relations between Vietnam and ASEAN member states.[10] Vietnam’s diplomatic advancements and economic reforms strengthened the ROK’s resolve to normalize ties with Hanoi.

On 22 December 1992, the ROK and Vietnam signed a joint statement to establish full diplomatic relations. This important milestone largely aligned with the two countries’ mutual economic and geopolitical interests in the post-Cold War era.[11] On the part of Vietnam, its economic interests and foreign policy of “diversification and multilateralization” served as the basis for cultivating ties with Seoul.[12]

In 2002, the ROK and Vietnam upgraded their relationship to a “comprehensive partnership in the 21st century”. They further elevated ties to the level of a “strategic cooperative partnership” in 2009. Most recently, the two countries announced the establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership during a visit by Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc to Seoul in December 2022.


The current relationship between Vietnam and South Korea has been built on a solid foundation based on the strengthening of mutual trust, growing people-to-people ties, and robust economic cooperation.

Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, Seoul and Hanoi continued their efforts to cultivate mutual trust. For example, bilateral parliamentarian cooperation reached a new height, with reciprocal visits in 2021 by Park Byeong-seug, Speaker of the ROK’s National Assembly, and Vuong Dinh Hue, Chairman of the Vietnamese National Assembly. Their visits resulted in an agreement to conduct high-level exchanges by establishing friendship groups of young and female parliamentarians.[13]As of February 2022, the ROK had donated 1.4 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to Vietnam, while South Korean firms and friendship organizations had contributed more than US$20 million to Vietnam’s Covid-19 Vaccine Fund.[14] Meanwhile, Vietnam’s export of 200 tons of urea, though modest, contributed to South Korea’s efforts to deal with China’s urea export restrictions that began in mid-October 2021.[15] Vietnamese leaders have also held direct talks with Korean firms to exchange views on Vietnam’s investment policies, and Vietnamese local authorities have actively extended support to Korean firms operating in their localities.

People-to-people ties also enhance the resilience of the bilateral relationship. The Korean community in Vietnam comprises more than 7,000 companies and 180,000 expatriates, while there are 240,000 Vietnamese living in South Korea.[16] Korean-Vietnamese multicultural families are considered “public diplomatic messengers”, who have contributed to the strengthening of bilateral ties.[17] Hallyu (한류), or the Korean Wave, characterized by the promotion of Korean popular culture, has been growing popular in Vietnam, particularly among those in their 20s and 30s.[18] Some Korean cultural products, such as TV drama series, are well received by Vietnamese audiences.[19] Additionally, the influence and popularity of Park Hang-seo, the South Korean head coach of the Vietnamese national football team (2018-2023), have contributed to Vietnamese people’s positive perception of South Korea.[20]

Robust economic cooperation has served as the backbone of the Vietnam-South Korea relationship, with the Vietnam-Korea Free Trade Agreement (VKFTA), which took effect in December 2015, playing an important role. As of end-2021, South Korea was Vietnam’s largest foreign investor, with the accumulative registered capital reaching US$78.5 billion.[21] Korea’s investments cover a wide range of economic sectors, ranging from processing and manufacturing to real estate, retail and construction.[22] With a population of more than 99 million people and an average GDP growth rate of 5.33 percent in the period 2017-2021, Vietnam is an ideal gateway for Korean investors to expand into Southeast Asia, especially the Mekong subregion.[23]

Enhancing economic ties with South Korea helps Vietnam reduce trade dependence on China, which is seen by some Vietnamese policymakers as a security issue, given the South China Sea dispute between the two countries. South Korea is currently Vietnam’s third-largest export market, after America and China, with an export turnover of US$21.95 billion in 2021.[24] Vietnam ran a trade deficit of US$34.25 billion with South Korea in 2022 following the setting up of operations there by major Korean firms.[25] However, this is not seen as a major issue as the majority of Vietnam’s imports from the ROK are production materials and inputs rather than consumer goods.[26]

South Korea’s leading chaebols such as Samsung, SK, LG, Lotte and Hyundai have expanded their operations in Vietnam, helping to deepen Seoul’s economic linkage with Hanoi. For example, Samsung—Vietnam’s biggest foreign direct investor—has invested US$18 billion in Vietnam,[27] and has plans to increase the investment to US$20 billion. The trend of South Korean companies relocating their manufacturing facilities to Vietnam has accelerated in recent years, partly due to their efforts to diversify away from China[28] amidst disruptions caused by the US-China trade war. Vietnam’s stable economic environment and conducive foreign direct investment policies have turned the country into a preferred choice for Korean investors.[29]

Burgeoning bilateral economic ties have also been facilitated by South Korea’s New Southern Policy (NSP) – which was launched by former President Moon Jae-in to cultivate the ROK’s ties with ASEAN member states and India to reach the same level that the country maintains with the US, China, Japan and Russia.[30] Vietnam has been hailed as the centrepiece of the NSP.[31] In the words of former President Moon Jae-in, Korea’s relations with ASEAN are “indispensable for our prosperity and peace, and Vietnam is at the center of that relationship”.[32] Some scholars even branded Moon’s NSP as the “New Vietnam Strategy”.[33]


With the two countries announcing their comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP) in December 2022, South Korea has become the first middle power to have a CSP with Vietnam. Previously, Vietnam only had CSPs with three major powers, namely China (2008), Russia (2012), and India (2016). The upgrade of the ROK-Vietnam relationship to a CSP shows that South Korea is among Vietnam’s most vital partners.

Under the new CSP framework, leaders from both sides have agreed to intensify their collaboration in the areas of maritime security, national defence, and the defence industry. Since 2012, the two countries have held annual bilateral defence dialogues to foster mutual understanding and promote joint actions in addressing common security challenges, such as maritime and aviation security, as well as nuclear threats in the Korean peninsula.[34] In 2021, Seoul and Hanoi vowed to uplift cooperation in maritime security, arms production, and defence education and training.[35] South Korea helped Vietnam strengthen its naval capabilities by transferring two second-hand Pohang-class corvettes to the Vietnam People’s Navy.[36] South Korean Navy’s destroyers also made three port calls to Da Nang in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and participated in communication exercises with the Vietnamese Navy.[37] Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief activities, as well as search and rescue operations, are also noteworthy areas of bilateral security cooperation, as stated in the Vietnam-South Korea Joint Vision Statement on Defence Cooperation with a vision towards 2030.[38]

South Korea now ranks third among Vietnam’s top five major arms suppliers (after Russia and Israel), accounting for 6.6 percent of Vietnam’s arms imports in the period 2017-2021.[39] As Vietnam is seeking to reduce its arms dependence on Russia, there is an opportunity for South Korea to become a reliable arms partner for Vietnam. At the 10th senior-level defence dialogue in September 2022, Seoul and Hanoi also pledged to boost ties in arms industry.[40]

Among the South Korean defence hardware that Vietnam may be interested in are the KF-21 supersonic fighter jets which are reportedly “fairly affordable”.[41] In seeking potential deals, Hanoi could benefit from Seoul’s coordinated policies to support customers through “loans, repayment flexibility, outgoing offset packages, technology transfers, investments and industrial collaboration in sectors that often go beyond defence”.[42] Another relatively easy measure for South Korea to step up defence ties with Vietnam is to increase its naval visits to Vietnam. Such visits, when conducted frequently, could help promote the ROK’s engagement with Vietnamese leaders and local communities while underscoring the bilateral commitment to boosting defence cooperation. Seoul should also consider Hanoi’s recent request for another corvette transfer,[43] a move that will not only help strengthen bilateral naval relations but also incentivize Vietnamese defence planners to consider serious arms deals with Seoul in the future.

It should be noted that the new CSP framework between Vietnam and South Korea is not limited to defence and strategic cooperation only. It also covers cooperation in other fields that are strategically significant for both countries, including in the economic and technological domains.[44] For example, to navigate global supply chain disruptions, the ROK pledges to work with Vietnam to develop the latter’s rare earth mineral industry, while Hanoi looks to deepen its cooperation with Seoul on “chip, battery, and auto production”.[45]

According to South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, Vietnam “is a core partnering nation in South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy and the Korea-ASEAN Solidarity Initiative”.[46] President Yoon also stated that South Korea would closely collaborate with Vietnam to promote Korea-ASEAN and Korea-Mekong cooperation.[47] With this vision, Hanoi will likely continue to play a prominent role in Seoul’s Southeast Asia policy going forward.

However, obstacles also lie ahead for the bilateral relationship. For example, although bilateral security and defence ties have been strengthened, they are still modest, while joint activities have not been well institutionalized and thus remain infrequent and inconsistent.[48] At the same time, although South Korea’s defence industry could benefit from Vietnam’s push for military modernization and arms diversification, the two countries’ military industrial cooperation remains limited.[49]

Meanwhile, the idea of amplifying defence and maritime exchanges has become prominent in bilateral discussions, but neither side has elaborated on any additional steps or details, such as the frequency of interactions or topics to be covered, to actualize this vision. Seoul and Hanoi should develop concrete plans for advancing their cooperation.

The two countries should also reframe their partnership to better reflect their growing role and status, as well as their shared interests, particularly in promoting regional security, stability, and a rules-based order. The question is, how should the upgraded relationship be reframed? One way for them to do so is to frame their relationship as middle powers joining hands to forge multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific. In February 2022, Vietnamese Ambassador to South Korea Nguyen Vu Tung stated that Vietnam and South Korea have long promoted multilateralism, especially based on the perspective and interests of middle powers, and enhanced the vitality of multilateral cooperation mechanisms, including ASEAN.[50] The two countries should work together to further promote such a joint vision, which will not only help strengthen bilateral ties and promote the two countries’ interests, but also contribute to the rules-based order and to cooperative multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific region.


For endnotes, please refer to the the pdf document.

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).