Vietnam Takes the Lead on Indo-Pacific Economic Integration

A farmer in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Credit: UN Photo/Kibae Park

By Kyle Springer
PERTH, Australia, Nov 12 2020 – This was the year that Vietnam was poised to make progress on its rise as a regional leader. Under the auspices of Vietnam’s ASEAN chairmanship, a breakthrough in global trade has been achieved despite rising protectionism and a global pandemic.

Assuming the chair of ASEAN in January, Vietnam’s diplomacy has proven adaptable amid the constraints of COVID-19. The successful completion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement under Vietnam’s watch this year will cement its claim to middle power leadership in the Indo-Pacific region.

The 2020 ASEAN Summit would have been easy to write off, but we have learned to expect a lot from a Vietnam-chaired year. Consider what Vietnam’s leadership has delivered in the past. When Vietnam chaired ASEAN in 2010, it inaugurated the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Plus, a defence dialogue of all ten ASEAN members and its eight dialogue partners, which includes the US and China.

When Vietnam convened the East Asia Summit (EAS) that same year, the US and Russia attended as Vietnam’s guests, paving the way for their official membership in the summit the following year. The ADMM Plus and the EAS are now key institutions in the political architecture of the Indo-Pacific.

And in the crisis year of 2020, Vietnam’s skillful diplomacy once again comes to the rescue. When Vietnam delivers RCEP during this November’s adjusted Summit process, it will be the most significant development in the global trade system since the establishment of the WTO in 1994.

Eight years in the making and spanning over thirty rounds of negotiations, RCEP promises to buttress the post-COVID-19 economic recovery of its fifteen members. Covering 29 percent of global GDP, its provisions spur the further development of regional value chains and greatly lower regulatory barriers to investment.

Vietnam’s leadership of RCEP marks its transformation to become one of the region’s fastest-growing and most internationally-engaged economies. Thirty years ago, Vietnam emerged from a period of war during which it had fought every permanent member of the UN Security Council except the then-Soviet Union. Vietnam had isolated itself from its Southeast Asian neighbours when it invaded Cambodia in 1978, and it suffered a bloody clash with China at its northern border in 1979.

On the economic front, matters were equally dim. Post-war reconstruction did nothing to boost Vietnam’s inflation-stricken economy. Five-year economic plans failed to stimulate growth and production in its agriculture-based economy. Trade and aid sanctions were placed against it by the US, Australia, and many of its other neighbours. With this context, no one could have foreseen the transformation that would later take place.

RCEP perhaps represents the apex of Vietnam’s efforts to integrate into the global economy starting in the mid-1990s. Coming on the back of its domestically-focused Doi Moi (renovation) economic reforms that began in 1986, Vietnam joined ASEAN in 1995 and acceded to the World Trade Organization in 2007. It eschewed protectionism and began pursuing a number of free trade agreements starting in 2005.

Today, it has signed a number of deals with advanced economies. Vietnam has emerged not only as a participant in multilateral trade efforts, but as a leading proponent of regional trade integration. It is a member of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) with Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. The CPTPP’s predecessor, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), earned fame with US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US from the deal after long being promoted as a cornerstone of former President Barack Obama’s “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific region.

A few months after the US left the agreement, the remaining TPP members met on the sidelines of the 2017 APEC trade ministers’ meeting, hosted by Vietnam. There the ministers reaffirmed the value of the TPP and discussed how to finalise it with the eleven of the original signatories.

Here Vietnam made the decision to stay in the agreement, despite losing market access to its most important trade partner – the US. Vietnam’s participation in the CPTPP makes Vietnam’s stance clear: it is committed to trade liberalisation even though the spirit of the time is decidedly protectionist.

RCEP continues Vietnam’s efforts, and Vietnam once again delivers an important new institution while it presides in its moment as ASEAN chair. RCEP is timely as well. It will put Vietnam and its Indo-Pacific partners in a good place to solve the economic problems pressuring the region, not the least the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit Southeast Asia particularly hard.

Here again, Vietnam looks like it will come out on top. With its domestic outbreak under control, Vietnam’s standing in the forecasts for economic growth are promising. Even under the most pessimistic modelling, Vietnam’s economy should maintain positive growth in 2020.

By the time Vietnam next takes the reins as ASEAN chair, presumably in 2030, its economy will be well on its way to becoming one of the world’s largest. RCEP will get a lot of credit for that progress.

Along with catalysing post-COVID-19 economic growth in the broader Indo-Pacific region, RCEP will further enhance Vietnam’s ability to attract the investment it needs to propel its economy in this promising direction.

The challenge for Vietnam’s leadership will be matching its regional ambitions with continued domestic economic reforms.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution


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More Children in Zimbabwe Are Working to Survive: What’s Needed

Child vendors - When children spend hours of their day in the streets or at the market, they lose a portion of their childhood that will never be regained. They miss out on education, play opportunities and other childhood activities. This has far-reaching effects on their development.

The actual number of children at risk is not known due to a dearth of research on child deprivation and government responses in Zimbabwe. This 16-year-old boy sells sweets and popcorn to earn a living in downtown Harare. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/ IPS

By External Source
Nov 12 2020 – The ability of Zimbabwean families to take care of children has been compromised by a collapsing economy, compounded by COVID-19. About 4.3 million people in rural communities, including children, are food insecure this year. The World Food Programme indicates that at least 60% of the population of Zimbabwe need food aid.

The Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation in Zimbabwe has estimated that over 20,000 children have turned to vending as a means of survival since the COVID-19 lockdown.

According to reports, child vendors in the city of Bulawayo are mostly selling fruit and vegetables. And in the capital, Harare, they sell a variety of goods from vegetables to used clothes and shoes.

The phenomenon of child vendors in Zimbabwe has been topical for some time. But the situation appears to be worsening.

When children spend hours of their day in the streets or at the market, they lose a portion of their childhood that will never be regained. They miss out on education, play opportunities and other childhood activities. This has far-reaching effects on their development

There are no statistics about how much income vendors make, due to the informal nature of this business and a lack of centralised coordination of their activities. Nevertheless, it’s clear that poverty is the reason children are on the streets. But in their efforts to help their families, they are exposed to risks such as exploitation, abuse and missing school.

The situation calls for a critical conversation about the capacity of families to protect and care for their children and the role of social protection policies in the country.


Policy to protect vulnerable children

A National Action Plan for Orphans and Vulnerable Children has been in place since 2004. The policy guides the provision of care for these children. My prior experience and observations as a social researcher suggest that the plan isn’t working in practice.

There are number of gaps.

The first is that there’s no clear definition of what the term “orphans and vulnerable children” means, especially in the current economic climate and increasing vulnerability of children in the country. There’s a danger that children will fall through the cracks and go unnoticed without any government support.

Secondly, there is a lack of good data. The actual number of children at risk is not known due to a dearth of research on child deprivation and government responses in Zimbabwe.

Thirdly, government interventions aren’t reaching those in need. The government’s National Action Plan for Orphans and Vulnerable Children is meant to be overseen by a multi-sectoral committee to mobilise resources. Under it poor households were to receive grants varying from US$10 (one person household) to US$25 (four person household) per month (paid bimonthly) through a cash transfer. The funds for this come from the Child Protection Fund.

The first phase of the plan was between 2005-2010 and the second phase between 2011-2015. The evaluations of these two phases showed several gaps in service provision and targeting of orphans and vulnerable children in the country.

Even by 2017 only 23,000 beneficiaries in eight districts had received the cash transfers. However, the number of families in need way surpasses the number that received it. According to social policy experts, the unconditional social cash transfer programmes don’t target all poor households. They only target those that in addition to being extremely poor, also suffer from severe social and economic vulnerability. This, however, is open to interpretation.

The current third phase of the plan was supposed to cover household economic security, basic social services and child protection. The fact that there appears to be a growing child vendor problem in the country in 2020 shows the plan is not reaching everyone in need.


Child vendors exposed to risks

The legal working age in Zimbabwe is 16, but children as young as 10 and 12 years old are selling goods on the streets.

Children aren’t being adequately protected from child labour and the risks they face, including exploitation and abuse.

When children spend hours of their day in the streets or at the market, they lose a portion of their childhood that will never be regained. They miss out on education, play opportunities and other childhood activities. This has far-reaching effects on their development.

According to the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth, the third phase of the National Action Plan for Orphans and Vulnerable Children seeks the involvement of families and the community in child protection.

But the governnment’s ability to drive the plan is severely compromised because it doesn’t have the capacity in the Ministry of Social Services. This is due to a massive exodus of Zimbabweans from the country as a result of the economic crisis. As a result, the plan is heavily reliant on external assistance and development partners.


Going forward

So far, the government’s response has been to reunite children found in the streets with their families. The reality is that without alternatives for these families to earn an income and to feed their families, children will go back on the streets.

In addition, it’s proving difficult to change the mindsets of Zimbabweans on the role of children in the society. Culturally, the involvement of children in the family economy is generally regarded as acceptable. Parents feel that it’s a way of training the children to become more responsible adults.

The government can prevent child vending through identifying families that are at risk of losing their livelihood. Social policy programmes need to be expanded to cover more people. This implies increasing the social protection budget to cater for growing numbers of families with children in need.

Policy makers and social service practitioners must consider adopting a bottom-up approach and work collaboratively with the affected and at-risk families. This can be done through participatory approaches such as workshops to hear from the community how best the issue of child labour can be tackled in this economy.The Conversation

Dr Getrude Dadirai Gwenzi, Early Career Researcher in the Sociology of Child Welfare in Africa, Lingnan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.