Vietnam marine economy strategy until 2030, with a vision until 2045: an analysis

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Maritime space is not a newly discovered domain but it has become increasingly significant in both security and development for many countries, including Vietnam. The territorial disputes over the South China Sea (in Vietnam they call it the East Sea) highlight this fact. The seas and ocean are of strategic importance for Vietnam also due to the increase in awareness, need and capacity. The marine economy strategy of Vietnam until 2030, vision until 2045 shows that Vietnam considers the maritime domain a critical component of its overall national strategic space. This article provides an analysis with respect to the content, the drivers, and the significance and genealogy of the strategy. A key finding out of the analytical process is that Vietnam has chosen to give priority to the role of the seas and oceans, because Hanoi understands the importance to keep up with the times. Also, the outcome of the marine economy strategy shows a remarkable improvement of Hanoi’s ability in strategic planning, which is embodied in the interdisciplinary and cross-cutting approach that was taken. The emphasis on the economic pillar of the strategy constitutes a critical part of the overall strategy of the country as far as the seas and oceans are concerned, and is in line with the strategic measures in the areas of defense and security.

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Introduction Alfred Mahan [1890] and Nicholas Spykman [1938] were not the first, who drew the attention of human kind to seas and oceans. Recent studies have shown that Homo Sapiens tried to get out of the Asia - Africa continents and to go to the Oceania at least 45.000 years ago [Harari 2015]. Long before Mahan, Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus had crossed the oceans. Later, the expansion of the British and American empires definitely drew from the intelligentized awareness of the importance of the maritime domain. As a consequence, they built up powerful navies and called for freedom of navigation. Other countries, such as Japan and India, were also mindful of the vital roles of oceans and seas as could be seen in the Pacific and Indian ocean battles. In the case of Vietnam, it dates back as far as the origin of the country. In the legend of Au Co, the great mother split her children into two groups: one group was dispatched to the mountain, the other was sent to the sea. Multiple sources argue that Vietnam established the presence at sea in early times. For instance, the Hoang Sa (the Paracel Islands) and Van Ly Truong Sa (the Spratly Islands) were inked on the Hong Duc map of 1490 [Việt Nam có bằng chứng lịch sử: 22.04.2020]. At least in the last 15 years, due to the heightened tension in the South China Sea, the awareness of this subject matter has increased dramatically among the Vietnamese and international scholarly community. For example, research papers have been published by scholars Nguyen Hong Thao [2007, 2009], Nguyen Thi Lan Anh [2016, 2017], Do Thanh Hai [2018], Ha Anh Tuan [2014, 2016, 2018], Nguyen Chu Hoi [2015], Carl Thayer [2010, 2014], Greg Poling [2020, 2021], Huong Le Thu [2018], to name just a few. The website or has been created. The famous series of international conference on the South China Sea has been organized by the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam (DAV), Foundation for East Sea Studies (FESS), and Vietnam Lawyers’ Association (VLA) in twelve consecutive years. The strategy contours The strategy issued on October 22, 2018 under name of Party’s Resolution on strategy for sustainable development of marine economy by 2030, with a vision to 2045 is comprised of five major components, namely: i) Contextual analysis; ii) Viewpoints and Objectives; iii) Major guidelines and Breakthrough areas; iv) Major solutions and; v) Implementation [VGP: 30.01.2019]. The logical structure of the strategy starts from decrypting the background to setting goals and measures to proposing lines of action. Following the strategy, the Prime Minister issued four important decisions for the sake of implementation and realization of the set objectives. In terms of institutional building, the National Steering Committee on the implementation of the Resolution on strategy for sustainable development of marine economy by 2030, with a vision until 2045 was established on June 2, 2020. Relevant programs and plans of actions were also crafted. For example, a plan of action on the management of marine debris was adopted in December 2019 [MONRE: 30.06.2020]. As could be seen, the strategy affirms that the sea is a component of the sacred national sovereignty of the country, a living space and a gateway to international cooperation. The strategy also expresses the determination that “Vietnam must become a strong and rich country thanks to the sea; develop its marine economy sustainably in association with ensuring national defense and security and maintaining independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity; strengthening foreign relations and international cooperation regarding the sea, contributing to securing a peaceful and stable environment conducive to development” [Party’s Resolution on strategy: 05.11.2020]. The strategy sets the goal for the country to become “a strong maritime nation by 2030”, with the associated sector making an important contribution to the country’s economy and solving international and regional issues at sea. By 2030, according to the strategy, the country should also adopt a green economy as the foundation for sustainable maritime economic development (see specific objectives in the box below) [Party’s Resolution on strategy: 05.11.2020]. The approach taken by the authors of the strategy lays emphasis on the balance between the environment, natural resources and culture. By 2045, the objective is to transform Vietnam into a powerful maritime country with sustainable, prosperous, secured and safe development; the marine economy will make important contributions to the national economy, promoting to turn the country into a modern industrial nation with socialist orientation; proactively and responsibly participating in addressing international and regional issues on the sea and the ocean [Party’s Resolution on strategy: 05.11.2020]. Specific objectives • General indicators: Marine and ocean governance, coastal zone management indicators will be in line with international standards, reaching the level of upper-middle class countries in the world. Most of sea-and island-related socio-economic development activities will adhere to the principle of integrated management suitable to the marine ecosystem; • Marine economy: Sea-based industries are expected to contribute about 10% of the national GDP; the economy of the 28 coastal provinces and cities will make up 65-70% of the country’s GDP. Sea-based industries will develop sustainably in compliance with international standards; exploitation of marine resources will be controlled within the resilience of marine ecosystems; • Social development: The Human Development Index (HDI) of the coastal provinces and cities will be higher than the national average level; per capita income of these localities will be at least 1.2 times higher than the average income of the country. The inhabited islands will be fully equipped with basic socio-economic infrastructure, especially electricity, fresh water, communication, health, education services, etc.; • Marine science, technology and human resource development: Vietnam will approach and make the fullest use of advanced scientific and technological achievements and emerge as one of the leading countries in ASEAN. In a number of areas of marine science and technology, it will strive to reach the world’s advanced level. Vietnam will promote training and development of marine human resources, forming a contingent of highly qualified and skillful specialists in marine science and technology; • Environment, response to climate change, sea level rise: Being able to estimate the potential and value of important marine resources. In principle, at least 50% of Vietnam’s sea area will be surveyed in terms of marine resources and environment and presented on maps at the scale of 1:500,000 and surveyed in a large scale in some key areas. A digitized database on the sea and islands will be established, integrated, shared and updated. Preventing, controlling and significantly reducing marine environmental pollution; being a regional pioneer in reducing ocean plastic waste. In the coastal provinces and cities, all hazardous wastes and domestic solid wastes will be collected and treated to meet environmental standards; all coastal economic zones, industrial parks and urban areas will be planned and constructed in a sustainable, ecological and smart manner, capable of adapting to climate change, sea level rise, with centralized wastewater treatment systems, meeting environmental requirements and standards. Marine, coastal and island ecosystems will be properly managed and protected. The area of marine and coastal conservation zones will increase to at least 6% of the natural area of the country’s maritime zones; the coastal mangrove forest area will be restored to at least equal to the area in 2000. The capacity of forecasting and warning natural disasters, earthquakes and tsunamis, surveillance and monitoring of marine environment, climate change and sea level rise, including through the application of space technology and artificial intelligence will reach the level equal with the advanced countries in the region. Measures will be taken to prevent and limit the impacts of high tides, saline intrusion and coastal erosion. Since the maritime domain is transboundary in many parts, the international cooperation content constitutes a focal point of the strategy. As such, the objective set out in the strategy is to “synchronously promote international cooperation activities on sustainable maritime economic development, aiming to mobilize and effectively utilize resources, knowledge and experience, and to maximize the support of countries, international organizations and partners” [Vien Nhu and Ngoc Van: 20.05.2020]. It also has set out six international cooperation missions, including marine and oceanic administration and integrated coastal zone management (ICZM); developing maritime and coastal economy; improving people’s lives and building maritime culture and a society that is associated and friendly with the sea; basic surveys, scientific and technological research, and development of maritime human resources; protecting the maritime environment, preventing natural disasters, coping with climate change and rising sea levels; ensuring national defense and security [Vien Nhu and Ngoc Van: 20.05.2020]. The key drivers The first part of the strategy explains why it was promulgated. A reason one could simply see is that the introduction of the new strategy was designed to ensure the continuity with the previous strategy to 2020. However, the drivers that are deeper than just the continuity include the recognition of the fast changes both inside and outside the country. From inside out, Vietnam has travelled a long way since the launching of Doi Moi in 1986. Having begun as a poor country, Vietnam has achieved the lower middle-income status. Having encountered isolation, Vietnam today has established diplomatic relations with 189 out of 193 members of the United Nations, of which 30 are under the rubric of either strategic or comprehensive partnership. The international role of the country is also getting more prominent as could be seen in the membership of and proactive participation in regional and international organizations. For instance, the 2020 ASEAN under the chairmanship of Vietnam is praised by the international audience as “productive” despite many challenges including the Covid-19 pandemic [Huong Le Thu: 30.11.2020]. Directive No. 25 of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Party issued in 2018 asks the foreign service to consider when and how Vietnam can partake in rule making and taking the lead on certain issues of importance for the country and of overlapping interests with other partners. This is a bold step if compared to the previous times when the thinking was mainly “rule taking” [Hoa Nguyễn: 30.11.2019; Lê Hoài Trung 2019]. More specifically, with regard to the marine potential and capacity, Vietnam has always given its utmost importance and made numerous progress in all related fields. The marine and coastal economy has been estimated to contribute to 47-48% of the country’s GDP of which the sea-based industries also can make up 10% as indicated in the strategy. The oil and gas exploration and exploitation activities have seen strong growth over the years. The maritime landscape has become obviously busier than it was ten years ago from Phu Quoc to Vung Tau, from Da Nang to Quang Ninh. With 8 logistics centers and 21 inland container depots, and a fleet of vessels ranking fourth in ASEAN, Vietnam has the ability to step up the marine economy [Vietnam’s maritime transport: 12.24.2019] (Figure 1). However, experts have pointed out that the proportion of the marine economy can grow bigger, if all the potentials are realized effectively [Thanh Hải: 12.05.2020]. For instance, marine specialist Nguyen Chu Hoi argues “the unsustainable exploitation of sea resources with outdated technology” has hindered the development of the marine economy [10 years on: 15.10.2018]. From outside in, the maritime domain is increasingly turning into contested spheres of interest and influence. The blue economy has become a major trend in the region and the world [World Bank: 06.06.2017]. Evidently, the disputes over the South China Sea are driven by an important factor: the increasing role of the sea for security and development of concerned parties. At least USD 3 trillion worth of goods pass through the South China Sea every year. The intensifying military presence of major powers such as China and the United States in the region is also linked to the vital importance of this body of water. Besides China and the United States, several European countries have expressed their interest in the South China Sea [Pejsova 2019]. The same thing could be said of Japan, India, South Korea and others. As such, Vietnam has enjoyed opportunities for cooperation but at the same time faced mounting challenges in the area of marine economy from the external strategic setting. Figure 1. Administrative map of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam In addition, as the strategy has made clear, trans-boundary environmental pollution, climate change and sea level rise have become urgent global problems that need to be addressed sooner than later [Thanh Hải: 12.05.2020]. The South China Sea is no exception to these global issues that ask for a timely and coordinated response in the form of a strategy. For instance, experts have calculated that microplastic pollution in the South China Sea might be among the worst in the world. A well-known fact is that much of the pollution is caused by coastal cities and tourism which in fact are booming now in littoral countries. Examining the strategy significance and genealogy Initial assessments Based on the content and the context of the strategy, one can draw initial but significant assessments as follows: First, although the title of the strategy does not suggest a comprehensive treatment of the sea issue from all angles, a close look reveals that in fact, it touches on the key pillars, such as problems of sovereignty, security, development, environment, and international relations. The approach taken by this strategy, as well as other strategic documents recently introduced by Vietnam lays emphasis on “uniform” and “comprehensiveness.” Also, one can easily find a lesson repeatedly raised by policy makers in Vietnam that is, “bringing into full play the combined strengths of all forces” [Overall strategy: 07.01.2016]. Article 5 of the “Major guidelines and breakthrough areas” states “ensure national defense, security, foreign relations and international cooperation” as one of the lines of action in the strategy [Party’s Resolution on strategy: 05.11.2020]. Second, at the same time, a strong focus is undoubtedly on the development goal given the country’s big need for economic growth to overcome the middle-income trap and move higher up on the prosperity ladder. Out of the three main goals of the country, namely security, development, and international role, development is clearly a top priority given the relative peace and stability in the strategic environment in Southeast Asia and beyond. The end of the Cold War, the economic success of the Asian Tigers and the unimaginable increase of wealth in China present vivid examples in this connection. In the past 35 years of renovation (launched in 1986), the GDP per capita, according to one of the estimates, has grown 10 times, but remains slower than other regional countries with economic miracles [Vanham: 11.09.2018]. Third, the strategy should be considered a new part of the overall national strategy on the South China Sea in conjunction with defense and security and foreign affairs strategy as mentioned above. Tellingly, many of the strategies of the country introduced by the Communist Party and Government of Vietnam choose the milestones of 2030 and 2045, which correspond to the 100th year anniversaries of the founding of the Vietnam Communist Party and the August Revolution respectively. For example, the political documents introduced at the 13th Party Congress set the goal to transform Vietnam into an upper-middle income country by 2030 and a developed country with high income level by 2045 [Ban Chấp hành Trung ương Đảng: 11.11.2020]. Fourth, the posture adopted by the Party and government is in tune with the trend prevalent in the international community, which has recently stressed the heightening importance of sustainability and resilience, recognizing the serious degradation of the marine environment, coastal erosion, and depletion of the fish stock in the South China Sea and elsewhere. A convincing narrative on sustainability can be found in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For example, Goal 14 addresses the issue of life below water with priorities given to conversation and sustainable use of oceans and seas and marine resources [General Assembly of the United Nations: 21.10.2015]. The treatment of the Formosa incident in central coast of Ha Tinh in 2016 shows that not only sustainable thinking but sustainable acting, as well, is a requirement for national governance in modern Vietnam. The creation of the 16 marine protected areas of Vietnam is a practical step in this direction [Linh Pham: 17.12.2020]. The public awareness of the importance of the environment has also increased as shown in the birth of various environmental groups and educational programs from elementary to postgraduate levels [Thảo Nguyên: 26.04.2019]. All coastal provinces observe the Vietnam Sea and Island Week and the World Ocean Day in an effort to protect the marine environment and eco-system. Finally, the drafting and introducing of the strategy, viewing from the decision-making and strategic planning perspective, represent a move forward for Vietnam. With the strategy, Vietnamese policy makers show that they want to tackle the sea issue in a longer term and a more integrated manner. A piecemeal approach would not serve the country’s interests given the interdisciplinary and cross-cutting nature of the sea issue. By design, a strategy is a set of goals and measures that go beyond the conventional thinking and day-to-day activities [Earle 1943: 8; Bealey and Johnson 1999: 312]. It, rather, provides the guidance for the long game, and contains elements that better safeguard and promote national interests, compared to an ad hoc, provisional, and short-term policy. Tracing the genealogy In terms of policy genealogy, Vietnam has long begun considering the marine economy critical to its national interests. The history is long, as has been indicated at the beginning of this article. The exercise of sovereignty, sovereign rights, and other rights as entitled by international law, including the UNCLOS 1982 dates further back than 2018. An earlier version of the resolution on marine economy issued by the Politburo was introduced in 1992. The policy makers also exert the continuum, a must-have criterion for strategic thinking and strategic planning. For example, between the 1992 resolution and the 2018 resolution, there is the 2007 resolution (Resolution No. 9-NQ/TW) [MONRE: 12.05.2020]. These resolutions prove a recognizable uninterrupted flow in Vietnam’s maritime strategic thinking and action. Also, from the policy making perspective, numerous related decisions have been made by the Communist Party of Vietnam and the government in order to assert the country’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdictional rights over the sea in accordance with international law, and develop the marine economy. For instance, the following documents as examples of this assertion have been concluded: the Resolution on the marine economy (1992); the Agreement on Cooperation in the Continental Shelf with Malaysia (1992); the Agreement on demarcation of the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf with Thailand (1997); the Agreement on delimitation of territorial waters, exclusive economic zones and continental shelf in the Gulf of Tonkin with China; the National Boundary Law (2003); the Continental Shelf Agreement with Indonesia (2003); a joint report on continental outer shelf beyond 200 nautical miles of Vietnam-Malaysia; report to the UN regarding the northern area (2009); the Agreement with China on basic principles governing issues at sea, of which dispute settlement in the South China Sea must be conducted on the basis of international law, including UNCLOS 1982 (2011); the Law of the Sea of Vietnam (2012); statement to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague stating its position on the proceedings initiated by the Philippines against China, including its opinion on the Tribunal’s jurisdiction over the case (2014); statement hoping the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague will issue a fair and objective judgment on a petition filed by the Philippines contesting China’s claims to disputed waters in the East Sea (2016); the negotiation of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (ongoing) etc. [Viet Nam Government Portal 2020 and multiple sources]. All of these documents have served different purposes but shared one common denominator, that is, highlighting the strategic values and interests of the seas and oceans for Vietnam. Version-2018 of the strategy certainly contains elements of continuity with documents of 1992 and 2007, and at the same time, harbors new items. Most notably, strategy-2018 reflects the current changes in the external environment, such as the birth of the urgent need of sustainability in marine governance and economy. The dispute in the South China Sea became more serious in 2018 compared to the time before 2007 as could be seen in the oil rig HYSY 981 incident in 2014. Apparently, the depth and scope of the strategy show Vietnam’s more comprehensive but persistent approach to the marine economy development and related matters across the spectrum of strategic thinking and planning. Since the introduction of the strategy, both the central and local governments have issued and implemented their plans of action. Conclusion Vietnam’s famous leader and strategist Le Duan once said that Vietnam had three main parts, mountains, deltas, and seas of which the third component has garnered more strategic attention. Vietnam’s marine economy has become a vital component in the country’s overall strategy both in terms of security and development. By 2030, if Vietnam wants to become an upper middle-income country, the seas will play a critical role. The oil and gas exploration activities that Vietnam has done for many years now are coupled with operations in other fields from sustainable tourism to environmental protection. Logistics and sea-borne trade are going to gain further prominence. Security wise, productive maritime industries can only become a reality with the ability to protect and preserve. Therefore, it might be expected that more investment will be given to law enforcement and naval forces. Capacity-building in domain awareness is the next logical step. The strategy for sustainable development of marine economy by 2030, with a vision to 2045, at first glance does not contain specific elements of security, defense, and foreign affairs since the primary focus is on the economic aspect. But in this world, everything is interwoven, and thus strategic planning demands interdisciplinary visions and approaches. In the art of strategic planning, one has to read the big picture before going into the details. The fact that Vietnam has incorporated a wide range of elements into the marine economy strategy proves Hanoi’s enhanced capability in strategic planning and the prevalent trend of emphasizing the role of seas and oceans in security and development.

About the authors

Dinh Tinh Le

Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam

Ph.D. (Intern. Relations), Director General


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