Norway’s Crown Prince and Princess led a large trade delegation to Vietnam this week to pave the way for more business between the two countries. Booming energy, oil and gas, IT and maritime sectors have made Vietnam’s economy one of the fastest-growing in the world, but human rights and corruption issues have cast shadows on the growth.
“We are in Vietnam at a time that is very exciting,” Crown Princess Mette-Marit said at a press conference in Hanoi on Wednesday. “The country is developing enormously economically and Norwegian interests can be developed further here. I think this could be really nice to be part of.”
“I am quite sure that we are going to build many good relations and lay a foundation during this trip that can be further built on,” added Crown Prince Haakon. He said he was excited to experience Vietnam’s rich culture and history during the three-day visit. Wednesday’s press conference was held at the Literature Temple, established as a university more than 1000 years ago.
More than 80 people representing political interests and more than 50 companies across various sectors accompanied the royal couple on the trip, including Trade Minister Monica Mæland. “It’s important for me to support the commitment Norwegian companies are making in Southeast Asia’s most populous country,” Mæland told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “A goal for achieving that is to put in place a free trade agreement with Vietnam. We hope to reach that goal with an agreement during the year.” Mæland acknowledged that Norwegian businesses seeking to establish themselves in the one-party state did face challenges, though.
Ole Henæs from Innovation Norway (Innovasjon Norge) said more and more companies were seeing the opportunities in Vietnam, where the GDP per capita is expected to increase by 50 percent to 3,000 dollars by 2020. The country has one of the highest income growths in Southeast Asia after the average income increased by 89 percent in the decade to 2011, according to United Nations Development Programme. A PwC study last year estimated Vietnam would be among the world’s 20 largest economies in 2050.
“Many retreated during the financial crisis, because Vietnam was then a challenging place to be,” said Henæs. “Now we see the interest is increasing again. And it’s happening within many sectors, both in energy, IT, the maritime industry, oil and gas.”
Corruption and human rights
The low production costs and proximity to major markets is a major lure for businesses, but can also breed corruption. Global watchdog Transparency International puts Vietnam at 116 on its corruption list. Henæs told NRK that Innovation Norway was there to help companies navigate the system.
“You can avoid corruption by being alert and keeping track of the books,” he said. “But you must also tolerate that getting established takes longer. It is also important to have a system in the businesses which means you can also have control of local staff.” He said the culture in Vietnam and the delivery of services differed from dealings Norwegian companies were used to.
The royal couple may be in Vietnam at the vice president’s invitation, but they also have the serious task of raising human rights issues. Vietnamese people living in Norway petitioned the couple to specifically address the case of an imprisoned dissident journalist.
“Human rights are important for Norway,” said Crown Prince Haakon. “We have a broad cooperation with Vietnam, and this is something we will take up regularly. We are Norwegian, we have our references and are from the community. And we stand firmly on that. So we share that during the talks. But we must do that in a way that’s best for the relationship and achieving what we are trying to achieve. So there is a balance in everything.”
Foreign Ministry State Secretary Morten Høglund from the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP) is also among the delegation, and he and the crown princess held democracy and human rights talks with Vietnam’s vice president on Wednesday.
“Today we discussed that we want a more open society, and that the civilian community be better included,” said Høglund. “We know that the conditions for civil society in Vietnam are limited.” He reminded the government that Vietnam had committed to being a member of the UN Human Rights Council, and Norway would hold them accountable.
“But they also ask for respect for their history and their community,” said Høglund. “They have a different view on some things than we have. It means that this is a situation that is demanding and will take time.”
After a concert on Wednesday night the royal couple traveled to Hue, and spent Thursday visiting Norwegian NGOs. Ho Chi Minh City is last on the itinerary before the delegation wraps up on Friday. The trip is Mette-Marit’s biggest public duty since undergoing neck surgery last year, and she had a slightly reduced schedule for the visit.