A significant amount of recent media coverage has been devoted to the subject of special economic zones (SEZs) and controversies surrounding their establishment in Vietnam. Faced with mounting public anger, Vietnam had delayed a final decision on the establishment of three new SEZs.
Economic zones are not a new phenomenon, with 18 coastal economic zones and 27 border economic zones already present in Vietnam. The establishment of these areas was part of the country's early economic reforms and they were designed to offer a range of incentives to investors, including free tariffs on selected items, lower personal income tax and reduced rent and fees. There are a further 325 state-supported industrial parks, which offer a more limited range of incentives.
What is an SEZ?
An SEZ is a designated area in a country that is subject to unique economic regulations that differ from other areas in the same country. Such areas are used to convey financial and legal advantages on businesses and encourage them to invest. SEZs are one of the most widely used methods to attract foreign direct investment (FDI), and have been deployed successfully around the world.
The Vietnamese government has shown a strong desire to develop SEZs, where it hopes relaxed regulations will in turn spearhead regional and national growth. This issue has been high on the agenda, especially at a point where the country needs breakthrough institutional reforms to maintain its growth momentum.
To ensure the success of SEZs in Vietnam, the Ministry of Planning and Investment studied experiences from 13 other countries around the world with both successful and failed SEZ development models. Based on that research, a model for SEZ development suitable for Vietnam's economic conditions was drawn up in the new Law on Special Administrative-Economic Zones.
At a cost of VND1.5 trillion (US$66 billion), three new SEZs were proposed for the provinces of Quang Ninh and Khanh Hoa, as well as on the southern resort island of Phu Quoc. As per the plan, investors were to be offered greater incentives and fewer restrictions than available in other parts of the country, kickstarting investment. The freedom from local regulations is expected to make them competitive internationally and foreigners were to be lured with tax breaks and streamlined routes to permanent residency.
Notably, based on the specific geographic advantages of the three SEZs, the MPI proposed several preferential industries to focus on and develop for each zone, including high-tech sectors, tourism and trade.
The development of Phu Quoc in particular is high on the agenda, as the government has highlighted its potential as a commercial, service and trade hub which adheres to international standards. Indeed, land prices shot up on Vietnam's largest island following news that it was slated to become an SEZ and authorities stepped in to suspend land use conversions and land transfers in the zones until a new SEZ law is passed.
Among infrastructure projects planned for Van Don, in the northern province of Quang Ninh, is an international airport which would connect the area with other Asian cities such as Shenzhen, Shanghai and Hong Kong. This is in line with the government's plans to establish Van Don as a tourist hub.
The draft legislation on the new SEZs submitted to the National Assembly earlier this year sparked concern over an article allowing land in the three special zones to be leased by foreign investors for up to 99 years.
Critics of the bills say allowing foreigners to own land for nearly a century could pose serious threats to the country's national security, with simmering tensions over the South China Sea an ominous backdrop to the proposals.
Attempting to allay concerns, the Prime Minister announced that the 99-year term would be reconsidered. Even so, approval of the plan has been pushed back until the next session of the National Assembly so that kinks can be ironed out.
Unfortunately, reducing such terms could limit the ability of SEZs to attract foreign investment. Experts have argued that such provisions are essential to incentivise and stabilise long-term investment projects. Extended timeframes for land allocation are crucial to attract the big investors required to ensure success of the zones. In comparison, legislation in other countries allows significant extensions when investing in an SEZ.
Other issues raised include the generous tax incentives, which could breed unhealthy competition, and a lack of consideration for environmental issues.
Investing in three SEZs at the same time is a risky gamble for Vietnam and requires careful management and resource distribution to ensure their success. Quibbles over the details risk unsettling investors, and watering down attractive land use and tax policies could doom the endeavour before it's begun.
The development of SEZs should be considered a framework for testing economic reforms for the economy as a whole, creating spillover effects and building experience to perfect institutions.
A reform-oriented mindset and willingness to experiment with incentive models will be crucial in bringing the SEZs to life. More thought will be needed to address the concerns of voters, but lawmakers shouldn't lose sight of the need to incentivise investors with radical ideas.
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