UK to build on "healthy' ties with Vietnam

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The UK is pushing hard in all areas of business relations with Vietnam.

With bilateral trade expected to hit US$3 billion within the next year, ties between Vietnam and the UK are in a "very healthy position," said Tim Brownbill, Consul-General for the UK in Ho Chi Minh City.

Brownbill, also director of the UK Trade and Investment for Vietnam, told a press briefing Tuesday that the UK is increasingly buying a lot of Vietnamese commodities. There is a high possibility that seafood, clothes and shoes bought in the UK now are products coming from Vietnam, he said.

"Vietnam is beginning to make a big impact on the daily lives of consumers in the UK," he said, adding bilateral trade already reached the $2-billion point last year.

Brownbill said total investment of UK companies in Vietnam, which now stands at $2 billion, can also be expected to rise to $3 billion by the end of next year.

"The reason I'm confident that we will see these increases is that we're seeing a number of big investments start to come online," he said, citing the launch of a £1-billion project by oil explorer Premier Oil this week as an example.

The launch of direct flights from both Hanoi and HCMC to London in early December will help boost both business and cultural relationship further, Brownbill said.

The highly anticipated direct services were greenlighted by UK and Vietnamese officials in May, only a few months after the countries signed a strategic partnership agreement to strengthen ties.

Officials also said the timing of the direct flight was good as the London 2012 Olympic Games are to begin just a few months later.

Brownbill said Vietnam Airlines has begun promoting the new flights in London, already trying to bring more British tourists to Vietnam.

Financial sector

Apart from the energy sector, with major oil firms like Premier Oil and Soco aiming to expand their presence in Vietnam, UK investors are particularly strong in the financial services area, Brownbill said.

The UK is the third largest EU investor in Vietnam, but it is the largest foreign investor in the financial services sector alone. Many UK financial institutions, including Standard Chartered, HSBC and Prudential, have operations in Vietnam.

In an attempt to raise awareness of the strength of the UK in this sector, the UK Trade and Investment will launch a training program in HCMC.

Brownbill said over six weeks, UK experts will work with about a hundred Vietnamese young professionals in financial services to develop their knowledge and skills.

The program will be inaugurated by Business Secretary of State Vince Cable, who will pay a three-day visit to Vietnam early next month. The cabinet minister will also attend talks held by the Vietnam-UK Joint Economic and Trade Committee, a bilateral mechanism for businesses that Brownbill said the UK does not set up "with just anybody."

The UK is trying to boost its profile in other sectors as well. The consul-general said UK investors want to be "bigger" in infrastructure, retail and education in Vietnam.

UK aid

Brownbill said while the UK keeps offering more expertise and services to Vietnam, the relationship should be a two-way process.

"As the Vietnamese economy develops, we're actually looking at Vietnamese investment in the UK," he said.

Speaking at the press briefing, UK Deputy Ambassador Kate Harrison said now that Vietnam has achieved the middle-income status, it will face decreases in international aid.

In May, the UK pledged to provide Vietnam with up to £70 million ($110 million) in grant aid until 2015. Harrison confirmed that the aid would come to an end by 2016.

Until then, the UK is very focused on moving toward a sustainable exit and working in partnership with Vietnam to make "the best possible use" of its resources, Harrison said.

The Department for International Development, a UK aid management agency, is working on areas related to the Millennium Development Goals, such as HIV/AIDS and sanitation, as well as newer areas like climate change, governance and science, she said.

The UK is also keen to support the development of human resources to enable Vietnam fulfill its potential, she added.

"˜Slow-burn' market

Harrison said Vietnam needs to address long-term structural economic issues and offer more support to the private sector.

With the increased risk in the current global economic situation, investors would look for the best business environment, the deputy ambassador said.

It's a great time for investors to be in Vietnam, but progress should be made in terms of the country's commitment to the World Trade Organization obligations, she said. 

Harrison emphasized that a sense of certainty would be very important for investors too, noting that some of the new restrictions and unexpected regulations may send negative signals to businesses about the market.

Brownbill said some of the biggest obstacles for foreign investors in Vietnam have to do with transparency in decision making. Licensing applications, for instance, can take a long time and it's not always clear how certain rules will be implemented.

But he believed the success story of many UK companies that came to Vietnam in the 1990s may tell something about the market.

"There are undoubted problems and obstacles that need to be addressed and overcome, but I think it is correct to balance that with the successes," Brownbill said.

Vietnam is a "slow-burn" market and it requires patience and perseverance from investors to realize the potential, he said.

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