Public-Private-Partnerships (PPP) have long been used as a vehicle for both emerging and developed markets to further enhance their public infrastructure to support growing socio-economic needs. Vietnam, however, has experienced an explosive economic growth over the past decade and is poised for even further expansion with their acceding to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and European Union—Vietnam Free Trade (EVFTA) agreements. With these two new growth mechanisms in-force, Vietnam’s infrastructure is struggling to accommodate that growth. The statutory cap on public funds utilization of 65 percent is rapidly approaching and the most viable investment form left for Vietnam is a functional PPP program.

Both CPTPP and EVFTA/IPA (Investment Protection Agreement) lay out very broad frameworks for supporting infrastructure development such as preferring renewable energy over environmentally-damaging alternatives and establishing development committees to determine how best to support that effort.[1] With the core of those agreements addressing elimination of almost all duties and tariffs on goods and services between the parties (over time), it makes the cost of acquiring hardware for energy infrastructure less. Additionally, the restrictions on cross-border trade in services required to construct and maintain technologically advanced platforms are lessened; further reducing the cost of an infrastructure project. Vu Tien Loc (president of Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce and Industry) speaking at an event “EVFTA and EVIPA: Opportunities for Business” held on July 1 by the Ministry of Industry and Trade, stated that EVFTA is the best FTA Vietnam has ever signed.[2] Vietnam is heading towards a foreign direct investment (FDI) generation, with higher quality, more advanced technologies, higher added value and a more eco-friendly environment, so the EVFTA will open the door for EU companies to complete these targets, Loc said.[3]

With these opportunities presented for Vietnam’s economic future, a draft law on PPP was drawn to address some of the concerns foreign investors have had regarding the regulatory environment for PPP in Vietnam. Mainly that there is not an appropriate level of risk allocation (too much on the investor), and there is not enough regulatory stability to support a long-term PPP project (generally 25-30 years). Many of the primary concerns have been discussed in other various articles; however, CPTPP and EVFTA/IPA have two restrictions reserved by Vietnam that can hinder the potential for expansive FDI in energy infrastructure (specifically power distribution)—CPTPP Annex IV and EVIPA Annex 2.1. Conversely, they also include dispute settlement provisions between member countries that can attract PPP investment if incorporated into the draft PPP law.

CPTPP Annex IV and EVIPA Annex 2.1

CPTPP Annex IV states, “[Regarding] all state-owned enterprises[4]…Viet Nam may require or direct the Entity [CPTPP member] to: (b) accord preferential treatment to…enterprises that are investments of Vietnamese investors in the territory of Viet Nam…pursuant to a government measure.” EVIPA Annex 2.1 states, “Viet Nam may adopt or maintain any measure with respect to the operation of a covered investment that is not in conformity with Article 2.3 (National Treatment); (h) …power transmission and/or distribution.” Both annexes allow Vietnam to require a potential member-country investor to use only Vietnamese domestic enterprises (majority-owned by Vietnamese nationals) in accomplishing the PPP project, if Vietnam so chooses. The EVIPA Annex is even broader than CPTPP by allowing “any measure” (regarding power transmission/distribution). It is also interesting to note that in EVFTA Appendix 8-B-1[5] (Specific commitments by Vietnam) Vietnam has agreed to virtually no restrictions on any construction companies or engineering services, including having a 100% member-country-owned commercial presence in Vietnam’s territory. In essence, CPTPP and EVFTA/IPA allow freer, fairer access to goods/services and investments; however, Vietnam can require any investor to utilize strictly Vietnamese resources regarding power or energy production and distribution. Most nations want to maintain national sovereignty and control of specific industries and resources they consider critical in supporting that sovereignty—that is not the issue here. This issue raised is one of regulatory uncertainties for investors.

These competing sections can cause consternation for a potential PPP investor. They may be able to complete the project for far less costs using their own member-country resources, but arbitrarily required at some point to utilize Vietnamese-owned companies that perhaps charge far more for the same good or service. The current draft PPP law is silent on this issue. PPP investors could be reassured, through contractual stability, of the guaranteed resources and services to be provided (and by whom) from the outset of the project. At a minimum, the draft PPP law should include a method for an investor to challenge a regulatory ruling or decision through an impartial, third party. While this issue might not derail a project, it could cause a qualified, reliable investor not to even want to bid a project; therefore, possibly driving the cost up or having a lower quality platform that will cost more in repair and maintenance in the long term. What the draft PPP law needs is to adopt the dispute settlement and resolution provisions of the CPTPP and EVFTA/IPA. In its current form, it does not mirror them.

Dispute Resolution Provision

Under Article 112 of the draft PPP law (dispute resolution) parties must use negotiation and conciliation first. This is the same as both CPTPP Chapter 28 and EVFTA Chapter 15/IPA Chapter 3. Continuing, a dispute involving a foreign investor (and between a State Agency) will be resolved through a Vietnamese arbitration organization or court, “unless otherwise agreed in the contract or unless otherwise stipulated in an international treaty of which Vietnam is a member.” If not stipulated in the contract, this means that if the foreign entity is a CPTPP or EUFTA/IPA member country, those agreements’ dispute chapters apply—maybe. Both agreements state that dispute resolution will be accomplished via mediation and arbitration for disputes generated under those agreements. There is no specific PPP language in the agreements; therefore, it will have to be proven that either of the agreements govern the project. This will add time and costs to the project, the government, the investor, and ultimately, the public.

Many PPP projects do not involve one, single foreign investor. There could be any number of various investor combinations to complete a specific project. A purely domestic, Vietnamese, single investor will be required to use Vietnamese arbitration or courts under Article 112—understandable. Any dispute between investors (state agency not involved) in which there is at least one (1) foreign investor will be resolved: “First, in Vietnamese court(s); then second, Vietnamese arbitrator(s); lastly, Foreign arbitrator(s).” Unless the foreign-investor here is a CPTPP/EVFTA member, or they have an international arbitration clause in their contract, there is no real option for the investor except for Vietnamese arbitration/courts.

The current draft PPP law’s Article 112 is more in line with general business transactions and not the magnitude of most PPP investments. They generally include multiple entities and financial vehicles/lenders, both foreign and domestic, ranging in the hundreds of millions to billions of USD. With the level of involvement regarding PPP projects, the draft PPP law should just state plainly that any dispute shall be resolved through international mediation and/or arbitration (unless stipulated otherwise in the contract). In effect, mirror the CPTPP and EVFTA/IPA Dispute Settlement Chapters. This will provide potential investors with the regulatory certainty they have been looking for. It will also alleviate any concerns around objectivity and neutrality for all parties. UNCITRAL stated in their UN guidelines for PPP in 2000, “…procedures should be established for handling disputes… (This is where arbitration should be a risk concession by the government…allowing international standards of the infrastructure sector to have an equal voice) [Emphasis added].”[6] Changing dispute resolution in the draft law to mirror the current trade agreements and UNCITRAL will help attract FDI for PPP infrastructure projects.

Vietnam needs to rely on the private sector to take their socio-economic growth to the next level. Government cannot satisfy the country’s requirements without it. Regulatory reform has been one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in satisfying the private sector’s concerns. From a statutory perspective, the CPTPP and EVFTA/IPA are able vehicles that give a wide berth for PPP projects to flourish. Within those landmark agreements, some conflicting areas do remain that can cause investor concern. From an operational perspective, government agencies need to streamline their processes to deliver services effectively under the laws and regulations (another major concern of investors). Eric Sidgwick, ADB country director for Vietnam, stated that Vietnam’s average disbursement rate is much lower than that of other recipients of the Asian Development Bank’s official development assistance (ODA) loans, largely due to cumbersome and time-consuming procedures.[7] While there is never a perfect solution for all parties, compromise is usually the most effective way to ensure buy-in from all involved. A way of alleviating investor’s concern over ambiguous and regulatory stability is to change the dispute resolution Article of the draft PPP law to mirror the already successful agreements of CPTPP and EVFTA/IPA.