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US-Vietnam economic relations: The China factor

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While addressing a joint Press Conference at Hanoi, after his summit, with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un, US President, Donald Trump spoke not just about the Summit, but also the current state of US-China relations.  Trump criticized his predecessors, for not doing enough to address the trade imbalance with China, while also making the point,  that he was all for China’s economic progress and growth, but not at the cost of the US.

If one were to look beyond the Summit in terms of the US-Vietnam economic relations, top US companies – Boeing and GE electric sealed some important deals.

Given the focus of Trump’s visit (which was the Summit with North Korean leader) perhaps these deals did not draw the attention they ought to have. The fact is that the US has begun to recognise Vietnam’s economic potential, as well as geo-political significance in Asia. This paper will give a backgrounder to Vietnam’s economic growth story in recent years, some of it’s key strategic relationships and then examine the nature of the China-US-Vietnam economic triangle.

Vietnam’s growth story: The key reasons

There is absolutely no denying the fact, that Vietnam has emerged as an important engine of economic growth within Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) region in general, and has been able to emerge as a top performer within Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam (CMLV) bloc in particular Economic reforms (doimoi) began over three decades ago in 1986. In recent years, some of the key factors which have driven Vietnam’s growth story, especially its success in drawing FDI are;  a large labour force (57.5 million), lower wages for workers (there are varying estimates, but the wages of production workers are estimated at around 216 USD, monthly, and this is half of what labour would charge in China). Electricity too is way cheaper in Vietnam than other competitors in the ASEAN region. As of June 2018, Vietnam charged 7 U.S. cents per kilowatt hour, while the cost of electricity in Indonesia was 10 U.S. Cents, and Phillipines charged nearly thrice the amount — 19 U.S. Cents.

If one were to look at the growth and FDI figures, they are a clear reflection of Vietnam’s success. In 2018, Vietnam’s growth rate was estimated at a little over 7% (7.08) this was the highest in 11 years. Disbursed FDI into Vietnam was estimated at19.1 Billion for the year 2018 (disbursed FDI for three years was estimated at well over 50 Billion USD). Total FDI for the year 2018 was estimated at 35 Billion USD. Japan with over 8 Billion USD was the single largest investor in 2018. Other countries which have a strong presence in Vietnam are South Korea and Singapore. China is the 7th largest investor in Vietnam. One of the major attractions apart from the economic potential is the country’s location (it is easier to expand to other countries like Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia)

As a result of growing consumer demand and increased tourism, revenues from Retail Sales and Consumer Services and Travel and Tourism also witnessed a significant increase in 2018. Revenue from retail services was estimated at over 190 Billion USD, while from travel and tourism was nearly 2 Billion USD. The increased revenue from travel and tourism it is driven by the rise in tourism in 2018 (almost 20 percent)

Vietnam has close trade relations with both China (Vietnam is China’s largest trade partner in ASEAN) and US. Bilateral trade between both countries for the period January-November 2018 was estimated at 97 Billion USD, though this was heavily skewed in favour of Beijing (the total trade deficit was over 20 Billion USD). In the case of US-Vietnam trade, it is heavily skewed in favour of Vietnam (US runs a trade deficit of over 25 Billion USD).

Strategic Importance

Vietnam’s strategic importance is also increasing. Even before the recent Trump-Kim Jong UN Summit, Vietnam has hosted a number of important events in recent years such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in 2008 (in Hanoi) and in 2017 (in Danang), the high-powered World Economic Forum in 2018, and frequent ASEAN summits.

It is strengthening defense and security ties with Japan, US and India in recent years. One of the key reasons for this pro-active strategic outreach is the China factor.

 During former Vietnam President, Truong Tan Sang’s Japan visit, both sides issued a joint statement which referred to the need for upgrading the bilateral relationship to an “Extensive Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity in Asia’. The joint statement made references to closer security cooperation, the joint statement made mention of Japanese assistance for capacity building of it’s maritime enforcement agencies. Both sides also reiterated their shared opinion on the South China Sea Issue as well as denuclearization in North Korea. In July 2018, Japan and Vietnam held the 6th Defence Policy Dialogue (this was co-chaired by Deputy Defense Ministers of both countries.   In September 2018,a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) submarine Kuroshio docked at Cam Ranh International Port in Kham Hoa on September 17. While security cooperation has been increasing in recent years, this development emphasized the increasing convergence of both sides on important geo-political issues. Japan has also been batting for greater Japan-Vietnam cooperation in the context of the Indo-Pacific. The Japanese PM, in an interview, in February 2019 reiterated the need for a stronger Japan-Vietnam partnership for pushing forward the idea of a ‘Free and Fair’ and ‘Open’ Indo-Pacific.

Vietnam has also been bolstering strategic ties with the US. In July 2017, Washington and Hanoi conducted the 8th Naval Engagement Activity. The United States is also providing support for Vietnam’s participation in UN peacekeeping operations. In 2018, more than four decades after the end of the Vietnam war, US Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson arrived in the city of Danang a key battle ground during the war. This was an important step in the context of strategic cooperation between both countries,  but to send a message to China that the latter’s militarization and aggression over the South China Sea issue will not be taken lying down.

Vietnam is also enhancing security ties with Japan and India. During his visit to Vietnam in 2016, Indian PM Narendra Modi had offered a credit line of 500 Million for defense cooperation. During Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang both sides resolved to work jointly for a ‘free and prosperous’ Indo-Pacific.

While Vietnam has been strengthening it’s strategic ties with the above countries, it has been a tad cautious with regard to the Indo-Pacific narrative and has said that  was against any military alliance as this would have an adverse impact on security in the region.

US-Vietnam relations

If one were to look at the trajectory of US-Vietnam relations (which were influenced by the baggage of the war) have steadily increased over the past two decades. Both sides have made efforts to put behind the acrimony arising out of the Vietnam war – though this is extremely tough given the fact that was amongst the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century.  Some important steps were taken in the 1990’s during the Presidency of Bill Clinton. In 1994, US lifted the trade embargo against Vietnam. A bilateral trade agreement between both countries came into being in 2001 after it was approved by the US Congress as well as the Vietnamese National Assembly.

 During the Obama Presidency again crucial steps were taken to strengthen the economic relationship. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) signed in 2015 for which Obama pushed would have benefited Vietnam immensely as the South East Asian Country would have gained preferential access to US market.

President Trump did make the massive trade deficit with Vietnam an election issue, and US exit from TPP was a setback but a number of important developments have taken place in the context of US-Vietnam bilateral ties. In May 2017, during the Vietnam President’s, Nguyen Xuan Phuc visit to the US, deals worth 8 Billion USD (two major US companies were Caterpillar and General Electric) were signed between both sides. Trump mentioned the US’ trade deficit and hoped to balance that over a period of time.

While addressing the APEC Summit in November 2017, the US President had a word of praise for Vietnam’s economic progress:

….’ Vietnamese economy is one of the fastest-growing economies on Earth. It has already increased more than 30 times over, and the Vietnamese students rank among the best students in the world..’

China-US-Vietnam triangle

After the China-US trade wars many argued, that Vietnam could be the biggest beneficiary. So far, Vietnam has benefitted (export orders to certain sectors have witnessed a rise) but not in a dramatic way (some companies are likely to relocate from China with Vietnam being a possible choice, but current evidence suggests that this has not happened on a large scale.

Deals signed during Trump’s Vietnam visit: How China has sensed an opportunity

As mentioned earlier, during the US President’s Vietnam visit a number of significant deals were signed. Viet Jet will buy 100 Boeing 737-Max jets and 215 GE/CFM joint venture engines, Bamboo Airways (a start up owned by Hanoi-based conglomerate FLC Group) is buying 10 Boeing 787-9 jets.

U.S.-based aviation technology company Sabre also inked a deal with the flag carrier Vietnam Airlines. The deal estimated at 300 Million USD is supposed to help Vietnam Airlines in upgrading its digital abilities, and to achieve its aim of becoming a digital airline by 2020. Total deals signed during Trump’s visit were estimated at 20 Billion USD.

The China-US-Vietnam triangle is interesting not just from a historical context, but also an economic dimension. What is significant is that while there is talk of US-China trade wars and the likely benefit for Vietnam, Beijing kept a close eye not just on Trump’s statements with regard to North Korea, but also the deals signed during his Vietnam visit.

An article in Global Times makes a mention of how China can be part of the global production chain through a “completion and delivery center” in Zhoushan, East China’s Zhejiang Province. Interior work of over 700 planes can be completed in this centre.

The focus of the Trump visit was North Korea, the deals signed will give a boost not just to economic ties between Vietnam and US, and are a clear illustration of how much importance Trump gives to big ticket business deals. It is interesting to see the approach of China towards these deals, while keeping a close watch on the outcomes of the summit with Kim Jong Un, China also closely watched the economic outcomes of the visit and analysed how it could benefit from the same.

The conclusion of the article is especially interesting:

‘China has no reason to be jealous of Trump’s economic gain in Vietnam. In contrast, we hope the US can increase economic interaction with enterprises in Southeast Asian countries. Hopefully, everyone can learn that economic engagement is not a zero-sum game’.

Conclusion

The China-US-Vietnam triangle is important, not just in the strategic context especially with regard to the South China Sea Issue as well as the aim of achieving a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’. As for the economic context, both Trump and the Chinese are equally transactionalist and it is interesting to see Beijing de-hyphenate US’ strategic ties with Vietnam from the economic relationship.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India

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Southeast Asia

Transforming Social Protection Delivery in the Philippines through PhilSys

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Social protection helps the poor and vulnerable in a country, especially in times of crises and shocks that may threaten the well-being of families. When COVID-19 hit and quarantines began, the Philippines needed a massive expansion of social protection coverage to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. Countries that already had good and inclusive digital infrastructure (including internet connectivity, digital identification, digital payments and integrated data ecosystems) were better equipped to quickly adapt their social protection programs to meet urgent needs. They also fared better in maintaining continuity of services when in-person interactions could be moved online.

For the Philippines, it presented a challenge, and strain was felt in the delivery of social assistance under the Bayanihan acts.

Fortunately, the country is moving to address digital infrastructure gaps, including through the development of the Philippine Identification System (PhilSys). PhilSys is one of the most complex – but also game-changing – projects undertaken in the country.

The Philippines is one of only 23 countries without a national ID system. As a result, Filipinos need to present multiple IDs (and often specific IDs that many do not have) when transacting, including with government, creating barriers to services for the most vulnerable among the population. Information across government databases is often inconsistent. These undermine the Philippines’ transition to a digital economy, society and government. The PhilSys will help address this by providing all Filipinos with a unique and verifiable digital ID (and not just a card), while also adopting innovative and practical data protection and privacy-by-design measures.

The new partnership agreement between the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for DSWD’s adoption of the PhilSys is a milestone for the Philippines’ social protection and digital transformation journeys. DSWD will be the first agency to utilize the secure biometric and SMS-based identity authentication offered by the PhilSys to uniquely identify and verify its beneficiaries. Pilots with the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) and Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations (AICS) program will begin within the next few months, before PhilSys is used by all DSWD programs.

Adopting PhilSys will enable DSWD to further accelerate its digital transformation. By automating verification and business processes for its programs and services, DSWD will be able to improve the impact while reducing the costs of social protection programs. PhilSys will assist with identifying and removing ghost, duplicate and deceased beneficiaries to address leakages, fraud and corruption, and thus boost transparency and public trust. The unified beneficiary database that DSWD is developing with the help of PhilSys will contain up-to-date and consistent beneficiary information across all programs.

The World Bank is supporting these DSWD initiatives through the Beneficiary FIRST (standing for Fast, Innovative and Responsive Service Transformation) social protection project.

Importantly, these changes will translate to benefits for Filipinos.

Those who interact with the DSWD will face less paperwork, queues, hassle, costs and time. With their PhilSys ID, they will also have better access to a bank or e-money account where they can potentially receive payments directly in the future, promoting financial inclusion. Indeed, more than 5 million low-income Filipinos have already opened bank accounts during PhilSys registration. And the resources that DSWD saves can be redirected to addressing the needs of beneficiaries who live in remote areas without easy access to internet and social protection programs.

Beyond the advantages for social protection, the digital transformation PhilSys will catalyze in the public and private sectors can be fundamental to the Philippines’ pivot to reviving the economy and getting poverty eradication back on track. Success in utilizing PhilSys for social protection will have a significant demonstration effect in accelerating digital transformation by other government agencies as well as the private sector.

But digital transformation is not easy. It is not about simply digitizing things. It is about re-imagining how things can be done for the better, with technology as an enabler. Digitizing bad systems or processes just leads to bad systems or processes digitalized. Digital transformation therefore depends on and can only be as fast as process re-engineering and institutional and bureaucratic changes to overcome inertia.

Digital transformation must also be inclusive to avoid exacerbating digital divides or creating new ones.

The effort will be worth it. And the World Bank is firmly committed to scale up our support to the Philippines’ digital transformation agenda. A digital Philippines will not only be more resilient to future shocks – whether they are natural disasters or pandemics – but also be poised to take advantage of the opportunities brought by COVID-19 (shift of activities online) and those that lie ahead in the post COVID-19 world.
 first published in The Philippine Star, via World Bank

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Bringing “the people” back in: Forest Resources Conservation with Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma

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With a lifetime dedicated to forest conservation, Dr. Apichart Pattaratuma reflected back on his career and what forest management means to Thailand. In the year 1978, he received the prestigious United Nations and Ananda Mahidol Foundation Scholarship to attain higher education at the College of Forest Resources, University of Washington, Seattle, USA. After graduating in the year 1985, he returned to Thailand with a commitment to teach and research at the Department of Forest Management, Faculty of Forestry, Kasetsart University until his retirement with full professor position. The excerpts below encapsulated a conversation between Dr. Pattaratuma and Dr. Rattana Lao on forest conservation.

Beyond the classroom: An anthropological perspective

I dedicated my life to study the anthropological aspect of forest management to His Majesty King Bhumibol Aduyadej of Thailand. I studied cultural dimensions of forest management in many areas of Thailand. I began with Huay Hin Dam with Karen hill tribe (Pra-ka-ker -yor) Suphanburi Province. I tried to review the international literature on land use and combine it with in-depth interviews with the hill tribes to understand the cultural dimensions of their livelihoods. I observed how they built their houses and how their managed their forest. There are three characteristics of the Karen tribe. Firstly, they lived on small plots of lands and their houses are very small. Secondly, they conserve their forest land with water resources. Thirdly, they refrain from using pesticides. Culturally, there is a clear division of labor amongst men and women. While men will clear the lands, women will cultivate agricultural goods such as papaya, guava and banana. There is limited drugs use.

It’s liberating to do research beyond the classrooms. To observe real live, real changes. I learnt more than I set out to do and they are all interrelated to a bigger picture.

Intersectionality between culture, migration and forest management

Karen hill tribes migrate in a cluster. There are more than 3 families migrating together to the new fertile forest land. They will migrate together when land is exhausted. This is most evident in the borderland between Thailand and Myanmar. Back then they did not have official documentation but slowly they do. There has been an influx of hill tribes from Myanmar to Thailand due to political conflicts from Myanmar. From my observation, they are very conscious about forest conservation and resources management. They said: “no forest, no water”. They are compelled to protect the forest from pesticides in order to keep the water clean and their health well. They are very logical. Although they grow rice, it’s very subsistent and only for household consumption. They don’t grow rice for commercial purpose. This is the land use for Karen hill tribe.

I also studied in Kampeangpetch, Nan, Chiang Rai, Phrae and Lumphun. Each place is diverse and the situation is really different. Some local tribes are preserving of the forests, others are more detrimental. We need an in-depth study to understand the cultural dimension of land use for each tribe.

The heart of forest management

People. It’s the people. People must particulate in the forest management. Otherwise, it is very difficult. When we go into each location, we must approach people and bring them into the conversation. I have tried to do all my life. Civil servants must approach people, not other way around. People are looking up to our action. They look into our sincerity and commitment. If they see that we are committed to study about their livelihood, they will share the right information and they will help.

Indonesia is a good example of successful forest management. The state get people involved. In every kilometer, there are four actors involved in protecting the forest: soldiers, policemen, villager and forester. They help each other protecting the wildlife and forest resources.

Can legal change help the people?

Legal relaxation can help lessen the pressure between man and forest. Before the legal requirement was very strict. Any kind of forest intrusion would be caught including small hunters gatherers. I think that is too strict. That put people against the law. People should be able to go into the forest and pick up some mushroom and bamboo and some wild products to lessen their poverty and hunger.

As long as people are still hungry, it’s very hard to manage the forest. There must be a way to balance the two: people livelihood and forest management.

Capitalists invasion

Much of the legal attention is paid to small farmers use of the forests. However, the real issue is big corporations invade the forest. This is very significant. Deforestation happens mostly from large scale corporation rather than small scale farmers. There are many loopholes in the system that lead to systemic corruption and mismanagement of land use. Many wealthy houses are built on large scale timber to exemplify wealth and status. It saddens me.

Would the next generation get to see large tree in the forest?

Less likely.

What can we do to protect the forest?

There are many organizations that responsible for the forest protection such as Royal Forest Department, Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation and Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. But the manpower are not sufficient to cover the large area of forest in Thailand. There are not enough permanent manpower to go on the ground and protect forest resources, while the intruders to National Parks are equipped with more advanced weaponry.

To protect the forest, the state must be committed and the people must participate in the process.

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Southeast Asia

Possibilities for a Multilateral Initiative between ASEAN-Bangladesh-India-Japan in the Indo-Pacific

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In the Indo-Pacific context, there are multiple partners all aiming for economic fulfillment along with maritime security and safety. Countries ranging from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea seem to be more worried about the freedom of navigation and overflight as Chinese aggressiveness is rampant and expansionist is a scary idea. The region from India to Bangladesh has a huge potential of interconnectedness and if connected to the Southeast Asian countries, it would also help in India’s Act East Policy and India’s neighbourhood first policy and further help out in strengthening relations to the far East as in Japan. All these countries combined can create an interconnected chain of mutual and common interests with balanced ideas of economic, military, social, political and people to people exchanges which would in turn help develop a multilateral.

Who can lead this Multilateral Initiative and Why?

Japan can be the prime crusader for this multilateral as it has excellent relations with all the parties and is the pioneer of the free and open Indo-Pacific. Japan has excellent diplomatic, economic and infrastructural relations with all the possible partners as it provides ODA loans, aid and assistance. Japan being the pioneer of Free and Open Indo-Pacific can be guiding force for this multilateral in the maritime domain which would help create a new regional grouping consisting of South Asia and Southeast Asia primarily based on maritime. Japan is the only developed country among all the other players and with its expertise, it can surely guide, help, support and take along all the countries. Japan most importantly is a non-aggressive nation and believes in mutual respect unlike China. Japan has no dept trap issue unlike China. Japan is known for quality in infrastructural development and with their expertise in science, technology and innovation can well lead these countries. Japan’s reputation of honesty, no corruption and extreme detailed paper work is commendable.

What are the benefits from this Multilateral Initiative?

This multilateral would help connect the Indian Ocean (India) to Bay of Bengal (Bangladesh) to the South China Sea (ASEAN) and the East China Sea (Japan)- would help in the creation of water interconnected network from South Asia to Southeast Asia. This could be the first regional maritime grouping covering South Asia to Southeast Asia. This maritime grouping can create a network of ports which could also become an economic hub and intersecting points of investment and infrastructural development (already Japan is investing in a big way in all these countries). India’s Northeast would get a greater economic, infrastructural and people-to-people exchange as it would connect India to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Mekong Ganga Economic Corridor already exists and could pave the way for Bangladesh and Kolkata greater port exchange which could be developed as nodal points in Bay of Bengal and would help in easy and cheaper freight. These countries can also aim for the strengthening of defence and security relations in the domain of maritime and can also aim for a logistics support agreement and a network from Indian Ocean to Bay of Bengal to South China Sea to East China Sea and would help tackle Chinese aggressiveness and China has been mapping the waters in all these waters and so, to protect one’s territorial sovereignty and integrity, defence relations must be build.

An ecosystem based on Digitalization, Science, technology and Innovation can be formed which would help create a united cyber security law and all this could ultimately lead to the 4th Industrial Revolution. South Asia and Southeast Asia would be lucrative markets and labour distribution and generation of employment can be done through the ports, logistics network, economic and trade exchanges and interactions. This multilateral would form a resilient supply chain in the region of South Asia and Southeast Asia in the domain of Indo-Pacific. Marine economy can be a major factor of this multilateral initiative as it would be a major success in the maritime domain. This multilateral can also work on vaccine diplomacy and work on future health hazards mechanisms.

Why Bangladesh must think of adopting the Indo-Pacific Strategy?

Bangladesh must adopt the Indo-Pacific strategy and create its own objects and call it the SAMODHRO NITI. Bangladesh has the capability of being an excellent maritime power and it is a major leader in the Bay of Bengal and to be an effective part of this multilateral. The Bay of Bengal Industrial Growth Belt (BIG-B) would be a key binder. Bangladesh must realise that China by building dams on the Brahmaputra River would actually create issues for Bangladesh’s fishery catchment areas as it would get inundated with salt water and to stop that Bangladesh must work to strengthen its position to tackle China. Also, China could also create water issues for Bangladesh and Bangladesh must look at ways to safe guard its water resources. Thereby, Bangladesh must work towards countries who face similar issues with China. The Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor is an excellent example of cooperation but this Multilateral if formed can be a stronger initiative and Bangladesh benefits from it as being a hub of textile, leather and pharmaceuticals and this Multilateral has all the efficiency of becoming an economic hub which would benefit Bangladesh too. If Bangladesh adopts an Indo-Pacific Policy, then its market in Japan, the US and Europe would become stronger due to shared interests and can also sign a Free Trade Agreement with EU like Vietnam did.

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