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Burma

Executive Summary

On February 1, the Burmese military seized power in a coup d’état that reversed much of the economic progress of recent years. The military’s incompetence in addition to a brutal crackdown on peaceful protests that destabilized the country’s security situation created a sharp deterioration in the investment climate. The economy is projected to contract by at least 10 percent, according to the World Bank. The civil disobedience movement and general strikes organized across the country to oppose the military coup and protest the increasing violence have significantly reduced Burma’s commercial activity. Many routine services that businesses require like customs, ports, and banks were not fully operational as of April 2021. Access to U.S. dollars is limited. The military regime’s suspensions of internet and other telecommunications service have curtailed access to information and also seriously hindered routine business operations. Commercial international flights remain banned, ostensibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some foreign companies have temporarily suspended operations, invoked force majeure to exit existing investments, and evacuated foreign national staff. There is a lack of rule of law, random violence by regime forces, and arbitrary detentions of businesspersons without charges. Companies invested in the market face a heightened reputational risk. There is also the potential for the military regime to expropriate property or nationalize private companies particularly in the financial and telecommunication sectors. In response to the coup, the U.S. government has imposed targeted sanctions, suspended our Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, and instituted more stringent export controls. Investors should exercise extreme caution and conduct heightened due diligence when considering new investments in this market.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 137 of 175 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 165 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2020 129 of 131 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2019 N/A https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 $1,390 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

Although the military regime has told investors and foreign chambers of commerce it welcomes foreign investment, its actions have undercut recent efforts to improve the enabling environment for investment. Many foreign investors have withdrawn from the market, evacuated foreign national employees, or suspended their operations in Burma.

The 2016 Myanmar Investment Law (MIL) and the 2018 Companies Law continue to govern treatment of foreign investment. The MIL includes a “negative list” of prohibited and restricted sectors for foreign investment. The Companies Law implemented in August 1, 2018 permits foreign investment of up to 35 percent in domestic companies— which also opened the stock exchange to limited foreign participation.

The Directorate for Investment and Company Administration (DICA), which is part of the Ministry of Investment and Foreign Economic Relations (MIFER) serves as Burma’s investment promotion agency. However, following the coup, DICA has limited operations because of staff participation in the civil disobedience movement. Previously, DICA encouraged and facilitated foreign investment by providing information, fostering networks between investors, and providing market advice to potential investors.

The government maintains a private sector advisory forum with the Union of Myanmar Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which principally includes domestic businesses. However, military authorities have summoned business leaders for command appearances rather than conduct voluntary consultations. The U.S. Trade Representative suspended the U.S.-Myanmar Trade and Investment Framework in March 2021. Foreign Chambers of Commerce have limited interactions with the military regime following the coup.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Generally, foreign and domestic private entities have the right to establish and own business enterprises and engage in remunerative activity with some sectoral exceptions. Under Article 42 of the Myanmar Investment Law, the Burmese government restricts investment in certain sectors. Some sectors are only open to government or domestic investors. Other sectors require foreign investors to set up a joint-venture with a citizen of Burma or citizen-owned entity or obtain a recommendation from the relevant ministries.

The State-Owned Economic Enterprises Law, enacted in March 1989, stipulates that SOEs have the sole right to carry out a range of economic activities in certain sectors, including teak extraction, oil and gas, banking and insurance, and electricity generation. However, in practice many of these areas have been opened to private sector investment. For instance, the 2016 Rail Transportation Enterprise Law allows foreign and local businesses to make certain investments in railways, including in the form of public-private partnerships.

The Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC), “in the interest of the State,” can also make exceptions to the State-Owned Enterprises Law. The MIC has routinely granted exceptions, including through joint ventures or special licenses in the areas of insurance, mining, petroleum and natural gas extraction, telecommunications, radio and television broadcasting, and air transport services, although whether such exceptions will continue to be granted after the coup is unclear.

As one of their key functions, the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration (DICA) and the MIC are responsible for screening and approving inbound foreign investment to ensure it does not pose a risk to national security, as well as to make a determination that such investment sufficiently furthers Burma’s growth and development.

Other Investment Policy Reviews.

In 2020, the OECD conducted an investment review for Myanmar, which can be found at http://www.oecd.org/investment/countryreviews.htm 

In February 2021, the World Trade Organization produced a trade policy review for Myanmar based on pre-coup information, which can be found at http://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tpr_e.htm 

Business Facilitation

Following the military coup, the military regime’s governance has caused a sharp reduction in commercial activities including in Yangon and Mandalay. Many routine services that businesses require like customs, ports, and banks were not fully operational as of April 2021. Many companies report difficulty accessing bank funds to pay employees and suppliers and there is limited foreign and local currency available. The security situation is unstable and some companies’ local staff have been killed by security forces and foreign-owned factories have been burned. The government previously provided limited business facilitation services through the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration, but services are restricted at present.

The government instituted online company registration through “MyCo” ( https://www.myco.dica.gov.mm  ). Investors were able to submit forms, pay registration fees, and check availability of a company name through a searchable company registry on the “MyCo” website. However, military regime officials have publicly threatened to take down the company registration website so it may not continue to operate, and military-imposed restrictions on internet and mobile access limit businesses’ ability to access this website.

The Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) is responsible for verification and approval of investment proposals above USD5 million. Companies can use the DICA website to retrieve information on requirements for MIC permit applications and submit a proposal to the MIC. If the proposal meets the criteria, it will be accepted within 15 days. If accepted, the MIC will review the proposal and reach a decision within 90 days. In 2016, state and regional investment committees were granted the right to approve any investment of less than USD5 million. The World Bank assessed that it takes on average seven days to start a business in Myanmar involving six procedures. Following the coup, it is likely to take substantially longer to register a business because of the suspension of many government services, bank closures, and internet access restrictions and suspensions. Post-coup, the MIC has approved several pending investment applications. According to DICA data, the number of new companies registered in February and March 2021 (the first two months following the coup) fell to just 15 percent of the average level in previous two years.

2. Bilateral Investment Agreements and Taxation Treaties

Burma has signed and ratified bilateral investment agreements with China, India, Japan, South Korea, Laos, Philippines, and Thailand. It has also signed bilateral investment agreements with Israel and Vietnam although those have not yet entered into force. Texts of the agreements or treaties that have come into force are available on the UNCTAD website at:  https://investmentpolicy.unctad.org/international-investmentagreements/countries/144/myanmar  

Burma does not have a bilateral investment treaty or a free trade agreement with the United States. In March 2021, the United States suspended our bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement in response to the coup.

Through its membership in ASEAN, Burma is also a party to the ASEAN Comprehensive Investment Agreement, as well as to the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, the ASEAN-Korea Free Trade Agreement, and the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement, all of which contain an investment chapter that provides protection standards to qualifying foreign investors.

Burma also has border trade agreements with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand.

Burma does not have a bilateral taxation treaty with the United States.

Burma has Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreements with the United Kingdom, Singapore, India, Malaysia, Vietnam and South Korea.

The Tax Administrative Law (TAL) went into effect on October 1, 2019. This tax law provides guidance on administrative procedures on the following tax laws: the Income Tax Law; the Commercial Tax Law; the Special Goods Tax Law; and any other taxes deemed as such by the Internal Revenue Department. The law includes an advanced ruling system, an anti-avoidance provision, and the imposition of interest on unpaid or overpaid taxes. The TAL also clarified certain provisions under the existing tax laws with respect to tax filing and payment procedures, maintenance of documents, re-assessment of tax returns, changes to the appeal process, and the imposition of penalties.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

The military regime has not demonstrated an interest in providing, or ability to provide, clear rules. Regulatory and legal transparency are significant challenges for foreign investors in Burma. The military established a State Administrative Council, which appears to be vested with authority to make and issue laws, regulations, and notifications with no oversight or transparency. Previously, government ministries drafted most laws and regulations relevant to foreign investors, which were reviewed by the Attorney General and then voted on and discussed by Parliament. The current law-making process is opaque and amendments to at least one law were made without public consultation.

The government is not legally obligated to share regulatory development plans with the public or conduct public consultations.

There is not a centralized online location where key regulatory actions are published similar to the Federal Register in the U.S. The Burmese government previously published new regulations and laws in government-run newspapers and “The State Gazette,” and also sometimes posted new regulations on government ministries’ official Facebook pages. The military regime announces some regulatory changes via state media or in the Commander-in-Chief’s public addresses, but copies of the changes are not easily accessibly or routinely posted anywhere.

There are no oversight or enforcement mechanisms to ensure the government follows administrative processes.

Foreign investors previously could appeal adverse regulatory decisions. For instance, under the Myanmar Investment Law, the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) serves as the regulatory body and has the authority to impose penalties on any investor who violates or fails to comply with the law. Investors have the right to appeal any decision made by the MIC to the government within 60 days from the date of decision.

Under the military regime, there is no demonstrated action or espoused commitment to transparent public finance and debt obligations. There are allegations that the military is incurring off-budget debt and using government funds beyond which was allocated in the government budget. Prior to the coup, public finance and debt obligations, exclusive of contingent liabilities, were public and transparent. Budget reports were published on the Ministry of Planning, Finance, and Industry (MOPFI) website ( https://www.mopfi.gov.mm/en/content/budget-news  ). Burma has issued the annual Citizen Budget in the Burmese language since FY 2015-16. The Ministry of Planning, Finance, and Industry has published quarterly budget execution reports, six-month-overview-of-budget-execution reports, and annual budget execution reports on its website since FY 2015-16. However, details regarding the budget allocations for defense expenditures were not transparent, which is a problem that has been exacerbated since the military coup. The Burmese government also previously published its debt obligation report on the Treasury Department’s Facebook page. (See:  https://www.facebook.com/pages/biz/Treasury-Department-of-Myanmar-777018172438019/  ). The Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) program reviewed Burma’s public finance system in 2020 (https://www.pefa.org/about).

International Regulatory Considerations

Burma has been a member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) since July 1997. However, there is not a consistent relationship between ASEAN and Burma regulatory standards. As an ASEAN member state, Burma’s regulatory systems are expected to conform to harmonization principles established in the ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement (ATIGA) to support regional economic integration.

Burma’s regulatory system does not consistently use international norms or standards. It contains a mix of unique Burma-developed standards and some British-colonial era standards. Prior to the coup, the government had been making progress on legal reforms to ensure the country’s regulations and standards reflected international norms or standards, including ASEAN-developed standards. In an example of ASEAN regulatory harmonization, Burma officially joined the ASEAN Single Window in March 2020 with the launch of the National Single Window Routing Platform, which streamlined the import process by adopting the ASEAN Certificate of Origin Form D.

Burma is a WTO member but it does not regularly notify draft technical regulations to the WTO Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Burma’s legal system is a unique combination of customary law, English common law, statutes introduced through the pre-independence India Code, and post-independence Burmese legislation. Where there is no statute regulating a particular matter, courts are to apply Burma’s general law, which is based on English common law as adopted and modified by Burmese case law.  Every state and region has a High Court, with lower courts in each district and township. High Court judges are appointed by the President while district and township judges are appointed by the Chief Justice through the Office of the Supreme Court of the Union. The Union Attorney General’s Office law officers (prosecutors) operate sub-national offices in each state, region, district, and township.

Immediately following the military coup, the military regime replaced several members of the Supreme Court with jurists seen as more reliable to their interests. After several weeks of largely peaceful protest and increasingly violent responses by security forces including arbitrary detentions, the military regimes placed several Yangon district under martial law, where court proceedings are conducted by military judges who have meted out harsh punishments with limited to no due process rights for those accused.

The Ministry of Home Affairs, led by an active-duty military minister appointed by the Commander-in-Chief, controls the Myanmar Police Force, which files cases directly with the courts. The Attorney General prosecutes criminal cases in civilian court and reviews pending legislation. While foreign companies have the right to bring cases to and defend themselves in local courts, there are deep concerns about the impartiality and lack of independence of the courts.

Burma does not have specialized civil or commercial courts.

In order to address the concerns of foreign investors regarding dispute settlement, the government acceded in 2013 to the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (“New York Convention”). In 2016, Burma’s parliament enacted the Arbitration Law, putting the New York Convention into effect and replacing arbitration legislation that was more than 70 years old. Since April 2016, foreign companies can pursue arbitration in a third country. However, the Arbitration Law does not eliminate all risks. There is a limited track record of enforcing foreign awards in Burma and inherent jurisdictional risks remain in any recourse to the local legal system.

Certain regulatory actions are appealable and are adjudicated with the respective ministry. For instance, according to the Myanmar Investment Law, investment disputes that cannot be settled amicably are “settled in the competent court or the arbitral tribunal in accord with the applicable laws.” An investor dissatisfied with any enforcement action made by the regulatory body has the right to appeal to the government within 60 days from the date of administrative decision. The government may amend, revoke, or approve any decision made by the regulatory body. This decision is considered final and conclusive.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

The Myanmar Investment Law outlines the procedures the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) must take when considering foreign investments. The MIC evaluates foreign investment proposals and stipulates the terms and conditions of investment permits. The MIC does not record foreign investments that do not require MIC approval. Many smaller investments may go unrecorded. Foreign companies may register locally without an MIC license, in which case they are not entitled to receive the benefits and incentives provided for in the Myanmar Investment Law.

There is no “one-stop-shop” for investors except in Special Economic Zones. Burma has three Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Thilawa, Dawei, and Kyauk Phyu with preferential policies for businesses that locate there, including “one-stop-shop” service. Of the three SEZs, Thilawa is the only SEZ currently in operation.

Competition and Antitrust Laws

A Competition Law went into effect in 2017. The objective of the law is to protect public interest from monopolistic acts, limit unfair competition, and prevent abuse of dominant market position and economic concentration that weakens competition. The Myanmar Competition Commission serves as the regulatory body to enforce the Competition Law and its rules. The Commission is chaired by the Minister of Commerce, with the Director General of the Department of Trade serving as Secretary. Members also include a mixture of representatives from relevant line ministries and professional bodies, such as lawyers and economists.

Expropriation and Compensation

The 2016 Myanmar Investment Law prohibits nationalization and states that foreign investments approved by the MIC will not be nationalized during the term of their investment. In addition, the law stipulates that the Burmese government will not terminate an enterprise without reasonable cause, and upon expiration of the contract, the Burmese government guarantees an investor the withdrawal of foreign capital in the foreign currency in which the investment was made. Finally, the law states that “the Union government guarantees that it shall not terminate an investment enterprise operating under a Permit of the Commission before the expiry of the permitted term without any sufficient reason.”

However, under previous military regimes, private companies have been nationalized. The current military regime has threatened private banks with nationalization if they fail to reopen, including threatening to transfer certain deposits in private banks to state-owned or military-affiliated banks. In addition, security forces physical cuts of private company’s fiber wires and the military regimes onerous restrictions and suspension of mobile internet service have deprived private telecommunication operators and internet service providers of their property without any compensation offered. The military regime has also banned several private media print outlets from publication and restricted citizen’s access to other private company’s internet platforms.

There is a high risk of nationalization and expropriation by the military regime, particularly in the financial and telecommunications sectors. There is no expectation of due process should the military regime pursue nationalization of private companies despite the provisions in the Myanmar Investment Law prohibiting nationalization and expropriation.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Burma is not a party to the 1965 Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of other States. In 2016, the Burmese parliament enacted the Arbitration Law, putting the 1958 New York Convention into effect (see international arbitration below).

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

To date, Burma has not been party to any investment dispute or dispute settlement proceeding at the WTO.

Burma does not have a Bilateral Investment Treaty or Free Trade Agreement with the United States.

There are no reported investment disputes by U.S. persons against the government of Burma.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Under the 2016 Arbitration Law, local courts must recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards against the government unless a valid ground for refusal to enforce exists. Valid grounds for refusal include: one or more parties’ inability to conclude an arbitration agreement; the invalidity of the arbitration agreement, lack of due process, the award falls outside the scope of the arbitration agreement; the arbitration was not in compliance with the applicable laws; or the award is not in force or has been set aside.

The 2016 Arbitration Law is based on the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) Model Law (Model Law), addressing arbitration in Burma as well as the enforcement of a foreign award in Burma. For example, the provisions relating to the definition of an arbitration agreement, the procedure of appointing arbitrator(s) and the grounds for setting aside an award are mirrored in the Arbitration Law and the Model Law; However, there are some differences between these two laws. For instance, while parties are free to decide on the substantive law in an international commercial arbitration, the Arbitration Law provides that arbitrations seated in Burma must adopt Burmese law as the substantive law. According to the Arbitration Law, foreign arbitral awards can be enforced if they are the result of a commercial dispute and were made at a place covered by international conventions connected to Burma and as notified in the State Gazette by the President. If the Burmese court is satisfied with the award, it must enforce it as if it were a decree of a Burmese court.

There is no public record of foreign investor disputes with state-owned enterprises.

Bankruptcy Regulations

In February 2020, the government of Burma passed the new Insolvency Law. The law adopted the UNCITRAL Model Law on cross-border insolvency, providing greater legal certainty on transnational insolvency issues.

The legislation established an insolvency regime that addresses both corporate and personal insolvency, with a focus on protecting micro, small and medium-sized enterprises. With regards to personal insolvency, the new law encourages debtors to enter into a voluntary legally binding arrangement with their creditors. This agreement allows part or all of the debt to be written off over a fixed period of time. The law also provides equitable treatment for creditors by enabling an efficient liquidation process to ensure creditors receive maximum financial recovery from the property value of a non-viable business.

The law also established the Myanmar Insolvency Practitioners’ Regulatory Council to act as an independent regulatory body and assigned DICA the role of Registrar with the authority to fine individuals contravening the law. In addition, the court with legal jurisdiction can order an individual to make good on the default within a specified time.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

In January 2020, the Ministry of Investment and Foreign Economic Relations (MIFER) announced tax exemptions for investments made in five priority sectors in all 14 states and regions in Burma as well as the capital territory. The tax exemption period is three, five, or seven years depending on the location. For a list of priority sectors by state and regions, please see MIFER’s website at:  http://www.mifer.gov.mm/region  

Myanmar Investment Commission permit and endorsement holders are entitled to tax incentives and the right to use land. With a MIC permit, foreign companies can lease regional government-approved land for periods of up to 50 years with the possibility of two consecutive ten-year extensions.

The government has no established sovereign guarantee mechanism for foreign direct investments nor does it generally provide joint-financing for foreign direct investment projects.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

Burma has three Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Thilawa, Dawei, and Kyauk Phyu with preferential policies for businesses that locate there. Of the three SEZs, Thilawa is the only SEZ currently in operation. Under the Myanmar Special Economic Zones Law, investors located in a Special Economic Zone may apply for income tax exemption for the first five years from the date of commencement of commercial operations, followed by a reduction of the income tax rate by 50 percent for the succeeding five-year period. Under the law, if profits during the third five-year period are re‐invested within one year, investors can apply for a 50 percent reduction of the income tax rate for profits derived from such re‐investment. In 2015, the government issued rules governing the SEZs, including the establishment of on-site one-stop-service centers to ease the approval and permitting of investments in SEZs, incorporate companies, issue entry visas, issue the relevant certificates of origin, collect taxes and duties, and approve employment permits and/or permissions for factory construction and other investments.

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

Foreign investors must recruit at least 25 percent of their skilled employees from the local labor force in the first two years of their investment. The local employment ratio increases to 50 percent for the third and fourth years, and 75 percent for the fifth and sixth years. The investors are also required to submit a report to MIC with details of the practices and training methods that have been adopted to improve the skills of Burmese nationals.

Foreign investors may appoint expatriate senior management, technical experts, and consultants, but are required to submit a copy of the expatriate’s passport, proof of ability, and profile to the MIC for approval.

In part because of travel restrictions implemented by the Burmese government to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in 2020, including the suspension of international commercial flights and additional measures instituted by the junta, foreign investors have found it difficult to enter Myanmar or to travel within the country to check on investments. Several foreign investors have complained about inability to secure or renew a visa and inability to secure or renew required work or residency permits for foreign employees.

Foreign investors are not required to use domestic content in goods or technology. Burma is developing laws, rules and regulations on information technology (IT) and data protection standards but does not currently have a legal requirement for foreign IT providers to turn over source code and/or provide access to surveillance. Burma has no data localization laws. In 2021, the military regime has required some IT companies to disclose all wi-fi subscribers identities and provide all their usage data including websites visited. The Ministry of Transport and Communications and the State Administrative Council appear to both have authority to initiate these data requests.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Property rights and interests are not consistently enforced. Land disputes involving foreign investments are common and land titling is opaque. Mortgages and liens exist, but there is not a reliable recording system.

The Myanmar Investment Law provides that any foreign investor may enter into long-term leases with private landlords or – in the case of state-owned land – the relevant government departments or government organizations, if the investor has obtained a permit or endorsement issued by the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC). Upon issuance of a permit or an endorsement, a foreign investor may enter into leases with an initial term of up to 50 years (with the possibility to extend for two additional terms of ten years each). The MIC may allow longer periods of land utilization or land leases to promote the development of difficult-to-access regions with lower development.

The 2016 Condominium Law allows for up to 40 percent of condominium units of “saleable floor area” to be sold to foreign buyers.

In accordance with the Transfer of Immovable Property Restriction Law of 1987, mortgages of immovable property are prohibited if the mortgage holder is a foreigner, foreign company, or foreign bank.

In September 2018, the Burmese government amended the Vacant, Fallow, and Virgin Lands Management Law and required occupants of these lands to register at the nearest land records office within a six-month period. The six-month deadline was intended to offer clear title to lands for investment and infrastructure construction. However, controversy exists over which lands have been designated as vacant, fallow or virgin, and whether the notification or registration period was sufficient.

A continuing area of concern for foreign investors is investments involving large-scale land projects. Property rights for large plots of land for investment commonly are disputed because ownership is not well established, particularly following a half-century of military expropriations. It is not uncommon for foreign firms to face complaints and protests from local communities about inadequate consultation and compensation regarding land.

In practice because of opaque land titling and unclear ownership, squatters de facto are permitted to use land that is unoccupied or land where ownership is contested or where they have an established history of living on that property.

Intellectual Property Rights

Prior to the coup, Burma had expanded its legal intellectual property protections but enforcement was limited. Burma’s Parliament passed four intellectual property laws in 2019 – the Trademark Law, Industrial Design Law, Patent Law, and Copyright Law.

Burma does not maintain publicly available data on seizures of counterfeit goods, although occasionally the government will announce seizures of counterfeit goods in government media or previously on Facebook government accounts. The Myanmar Police Force’s Criminal Investigative Department (CID) investigates and seizes counterfeit goods, including brands, documents, gold, products, and money, but not medicines. The CID currently does not record the value of the amount seized.

Burma is not listed in the USTR’s Special 301 report or the notorious market report.

For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at  http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/  .

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

The military regime’s attitude towards foreign portfolio investment is unknown. Previously, the Burmese government had gradually opened up to foreign portfolio investment, but both the stock and bond markets are small and lack sufficient liquidity to enter and exit sizeable positions.

Myanmar has a small stock market with infrequent trading. In July 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that foreign individuals and entities are permitted to hold up to 35 percent of the equity in Burmese companies listed on the Yangon Stock Exchange.

Burma also has a very small publicly traded debt market. Banks have been the primary buyers of government bonds issued by the Central Bank of Myanmar, which has established a nascent bond market auction system. The Central Bank issues government treasury bonds with maturities of two, three, and five years.

The Central Bank of Myanmar (CBM) sets commercial loan interest rates and saving deposit rates that banks can offer, so banks cannot conduct risk-based pricing for credit. Consequently, credit is not strictly allocated on market terms. Foreign investors generally seek financing outside of Myanmar because of the lack of sophisticated credit instruments offered by Burmese financial institutions and lack of risk-based pricing.

Money and Banking System

There is limited penetration of banking services in the country, but the usage of mobile payments had grown rapidly prior to the coup. A government 2020 census found 14 percent of the population has access to a savings account through a traditional bank. The banking system is fragile with a high volume of non-performing loans (NPLs). Financial analysts estimate that NPLs at some local banks account for 40 to 50 percent of outstanding credit but accurate calculations are hard because of accounting inconsistencies about what constitutes a non-performing loan.

As of December 2019, total assets in Burma’s banking system were 72 trillion kyat (USD47 billion).

The Central Bank of Myanmar (CBM) is responsible for the country’s monetary and exchange rate policies as well as regulating and supervising the banking sector.

Prior to the coup, the government had gradually opened the banking sector to foreign investors. The government began awarding limited banking licenses to foreign banks in October 2014. In November 2018, the CBM published guidelines that permit foreign banks with local licenses to offer “any financing services and other banking services” to local corporations. Previously, foreign banks were only allowed to offer export financing and related banking services to foreign corporations.

Following the military coup and the imposition of U.S. sanctions on Burma, including on two large military holding companies, some international banks are considering whether to terminate their correspondent banking relationship with Myanmar banks. No U.S. banks have a correspondent relationship with Burmese banks.

Foreigners are allowed to open a bank account in Burma in either U.S. dollars or Burmese kyat. To open a bank account, foreigners must provide proof of a valid visa along with proof of income or a letter from their employer.

The Germany development agency GIZ published the fifth edition the GIZ Banking Report in January 2021 (https://2020.giz-banking-report-myanmar.com/).

5. Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

According to Chapter 15 of the Myanmar Investment Law, foreign investors are able to convert, transfer, and repatriate profits, dividends, royalties, patent fees, license fees, technical assistance and management fees, shares and other current income resulting from any investment made under this law. Nevertheless, in practice, the transfer of money in or out of Burma has been difficult, as many international banks have internal prohibitions on conducting business in Burma given the long history of sanctions and significant money-laundering risks. The closure of most banks following the coup, shortage of U.S. dollars, and low cash withdrawal limits have further limited investors’ ability to conduct foreign exchange transactions and other necessary business operations.

Under the Foreign Exchange Management Law, transfer of funds can be made only through licensed foreign exchange dealers, using freely usable currencies. The Central Bank of Myanmar (CBM) grants final approval on any new loans or loan transfers by foreign investors. According to a new regulation in the Foreign Exchange Management Law, foreign investors applying for an offshore loan must get approval from the CBM. Applications are submitted through the Myanmar Investment Commission by providing a company profile, audited financial statements, draft loan agreement, and a recent bank credit statement.

Since February 5, 2019, the Central Bank calculates a market-based reference exchange rate from the volume-weighted average exchange rate of interbank and bank-customer deals during the day. In April 2021, a parallel market exchange rate developed which diverges from the Central Bank rate. Remittance Policies

Remittance Policies

According to the Myanmar Investment Law, foreign investors can remit foreign currency through authorized banks. Nevertheless, in practice, the transfer of money in or out of Burma has been difficult, as many international banks have internal prohibitions on conducting business in Burma given the long history of sanctions and significant money-laundering risks. The military coup has further exacerbated these investment remittance challenges.

The challenge of repatriating remittances through the formal banking system are also reflected in the continued use of informal remittance services (such as the “hundi system”) by both the public and businesses. On November 15, 2019, the Central Bank of Myanmar adopted the Remittance Business Regulation in order to bring these informal networks into the official financial system. The regulations require remittance business licenses to conduct inward and outward remittance businesses from the Central Bank of Myanmar. It is unclear how the military regime will proceed with this regulation and the training of businesses to grant them a license to conduct remittances.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Burma does not have a sovereign wealth fund.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

State-owned enterprises (SOEs) in Burma are active in various sectors, including natural resource extraction, print news, energy production and distribution, banking, mobile telecommunications, and transportation. SOEs employ approximately 145,000 people, according to a 2018 report by the Natural Resource Governance Institute. The 1989 State-Owned Economic Enterprises Law does not establish a system of monitoring enterprise operations, hence detailed information on Burmese SOEs is difficult to obtain. However, according to commercial statements, the total net income of all SOEs during fiscal year 2018-19 was approximately USD1.1 billion. The top profit-making SOEs are found in the natural resource sector, namely the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, Myanma Gems Enterprise, and Myanma Timber Enterprise. Within Burma, there are 32 SOEs that are managed directly by six ministries without independent boards.

SOEs enjoy several advantages including serving in some cases as the market regulator, preferential land access, and access to low-interest credit. According to the State-Owned Economic Enterprises Law, SOEs wield regulatory powers that provide SOEs a significant market advantage, including through an ability to recommend specific tax exemptions to the Myanmar Investment Commission on behalf of private sector joint-venture partners and to monitor private sector companies’ compliance with contracts. In addition, the law stipulates that SOE managers have sole discretion in awarding contracts and licenses to private sector partners with limited oversight. SOEs can secure loans at low interest rates from state-owned banks, with approval from the cabinet. Private enterprises, unlike SOEs, are forced to provide land or other real estate as collateral in order to be considered for a loan. SOEs have historically had an advantage over private entities in land access because under the Constitution the State owns all the land.

In April 2021, the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned three Burmese SOEs for their roles in financing the military regime: the Myanma Gems Enterprise, the Myanma Timber Enterprise; and the Myanmar Pearl Enterprise. Additionally, two Myanmar military holding companies: Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited are also subject to U.S. Department of Treasury sanctions. Investors should closely consult the Special Designated National list to check which entities are subject to U.S. sanctions.

Privatization Program

The military regime has not publicly announced any plans or timeline for privatization and in the past has preferred nationalization and supporting state-owned enterprises. Prior to the coup, the government had been implementing a privatization plan, which permitted foreign investment.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

The military regime has not demonstrated any awareness or commitment to responsible business. On the contrary, security forces are engaged in an escalating pattern of human rights abuses including mass detentions, extrajudicial killings, and violence deliberately targeting civilians. These human rights abuses have seriously also impacted the business community. Two foreign national business advisors were detained and put under house arrest without charge and one economic advisor was charged for violation of the official secrets acts. Local businessmen have been interrogated and subject to detention without charges by security forces. Several employees of local businesses have been killed by security forces.

Although there are labor unions, independent NGOs, and business associations in Burma, their ability to operate has been several constrained and in some cases these organizations have been openly targeted by the military regime’s security forces. Child and forced labor is present in Burma. For more information on the human rights and labor situation, please refer to the additional resources.

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) Secretariat suspended Myanmar’s participation in the EITI initiative following the military coup. Burmese government officials do not regularly participate in meetings of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, although several businesses, civil society organization, and diplomats participate in Burma country discussions.

The government of Burma is not a signatory of The Montreux Document on Private Military and Security Companies, a supporter of the International Code of Conduct or Private Security Service Providers, or a participant in the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers’ Association. The Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business is a civil society member of the International Code of Conduct Association.

Additional Resources 

Department of State

Department of Labor

9. Corruption

Although the pre-coup government made some progress in addressing corruption, including opening – with U.S. support – two new Anti-Corruption Commission branch offices in November 2020, law enforcement and judicial institutions do not have the capacity or independence to be effective in the fight against corruption under the new military regime.  Corruption is rampant within the military and the post-coup military regime appointed new members on the Anti-Corruption Commission. The post-coup military regime has used the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to investigate politically motivated corruption charges, including against deposed State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.

In 2018, the government amended its anti-corruption law to give the ACC authority to scrutinize government procurements. Family members of politicians can also be prosecuted under the anti-corruption law, though office holders face higher penalties.

Some companies are legally required to have compliance programs to detect and prevent bribery of government officials. Under Burma’s Anti-Money Laundering Law, law firms, banks, and companies operating in the insurance and gemstone sectors are required to appoint compliance officers and conduct heightened due diligence on certain customers.

Burma does not have laws to counter conflicts-of-interest in awarding contracts or government procurement. However, the President’s office issued orders to prevent conflicts-of-interest for construction contracts and several ministries had put in place internal rules to avoid conflicts-of-interest in awarding tenders prior to the coup. In the private sector, some of Burma’s largest companies have developed anti-corruption policies, which they have published on-line.

Burma signed the UN Anticorruption Convention in 2005, and ratified it on December 20, 2012.

Burma is not party to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions.

The military regime does not provide protection to NGOs investigating corruption.

Resources to Report Corruption

Anti Corruption Commission
Cluster (1), Sports’ Village, Wunna Theikdi Ward
Nay Pyi Taw
Phone: + 95 67 810 334 7
Email: myanmaracc2014@gmail.com
http://www.accm.gov.mm/acc/index.php?route=common/home 

10. Political and Security Environment

Burma has a long history of civil wars and military coups followed by violence. In the aftermath of the February coup, Burmese security forces launched a brutal crackdown against the people of Burma, who have peacefully protested the coup and the military’s upending of their democratic transition.  In the face of brutal force used by the regime, the people of Burma have disrupted the military’s ability to govern by launching a nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement, including general strikes and protests. Burma is also home to multiple long-running insurgencies in border regions, where the military competes for control with various ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). The ethnic states routinely see conflict between the government and EAOs, as well as internecine violence between EAOs. Combatants use light and heavy arms, landmines, and improvised explosive devices, among other weapons. All parties to these conflicts have been responsible for inflicting casualties among civilian populations, and the military regime has shown particular disregard for civilian life in conflict zones. The continued use of landmines by the Burmese military and EAOs in the north, northeast, and southeast routinely results in civilian casualties. Civilians are regularly displaced and killed as a result of clashes between the military and the EAOs, or between the EAOs themselves.

There have been several reported fires targeting foreign businesses since the coup, including Chinese-owned factories, an agricultural storage facility, and a few military related companies. Attacks resulting in destruction of property and injuries have also been reported at a number of banks and bank ATMs as well. Foreign businesses are concerned about the potential for this to escalate, although principally the targets have been companies or infrastructure associated with the military, or companies who are perceived to be supportive of the military. The Chinese government has reportedly sought increased military regime security force protection for an oil and gas pipeline that runs through Myanmar to China because of the deteriorating security situation.

The military regime has also declared martial law in several industrial townships in Yangon suspending even the veneer of civil liberties and allowing security forces to be more aggressive in response to protests.

Protestors and military opponents have organized boycotts of businesses that have ties to the military regime with great success.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

Due to the February 1 coup, progress on labor reforms has stalled, and in many cases, reversed.  The national labor tripartite dialogue between the government, employers, and union leaders, which had been an important forum for advancing workers’ rights before the coup, dissolved in February after several large labor unions withdrew in protest.  Burma’s labor union leaders, who have been active in organizing strikes and peaceful demonstrations against the regime since February 1, have been openly targeted by the military, and several union leaders have been killed or arrested.  The regime has responded to organized labor’s participation in the CDM, declaring 16 labor-related organizations illegal and issuing warrants for the arrest of more 70 union organizers.  The U.S. government released a statement in March noting we are closely monitoring the labor situation and potential impact on Burma’s Generalized System of Preferences eligibility.

Burma has a large supply of mostly unskilled workers. Skilled labor and managerial staff are in high demand and short supply. According to the government, 70 percent of Burma’s population is employed in agriculture. From the World Bank’s 2014 “Ending Poverty and Boosting Prosperity in a Time of Transition” report on Burma, 73 percent of the total labor force in Burma was employed in the informal sector in 2010, or 57 percent if one excludes agricultural workers. Casual laborers represented another 18 percent, mainly from the rural areas. Unpaid family workers represent another 15 percent.

Many companies struggle to find and retain skilled labor. The military’s nationalization of schools in 1964, its discouragement of English language classes in favor of Burmese, the lack of investment in education by the previous governments of Burma, and the repeated closing of Burmese universities from 1988 to the mid-2000’s have taken a toll on the country’s workforce. Most people in the 15- to 39-year-old demographic lack technical skills and English proficiency. In order to address this skilled labor shortage, Burma’s Employment and Skill Development Law went into effect in December 2013. The law provides for compulsory contributions on the part of employers to a “skill development fund,” although this provision has not been implemented.

In October 2011, the Burmese government passed the Labor Organization Law, which legalized the formation of trade unions and allows workers to strike. As of April 2019, roughly 2,900 enterprise-level unions had been formed in a variety of industries ranging from garments and textiles to agriculture to heavy industry. The passage of the Labor Organization Law engendered a labor movement in Burma, and there is a low, yet increasing, level of awareness of labor issues among workers, employers, and even government officials. Still, at present, the use of collective bargaining remains limited. Strikes are increasingly common in the post-coup environment as a form of political protest against the military regime and pre-coup were common in response to employment grievances, particularly in factories.

Prior to the military coup, the Burmese government was bringing the legal system into compliance with international labor standards. The government has passed a number of labor reforms and amended a range of labor-related laws, such as the Shops and Establishment Law, the Payment of Wages Law, and the Occupational Safety and Health Law. In 2019, Parliament also passed the Settlement of Labor Disputes Law. Under this law, parties to labor disputes can seek mediation through arbitration councils. All stakeholders have a say in the selection of arbitration mediators. If arbitration fails, disputes enter the court system. Parliament approved Burma’s ratification of an international treaty to abolish child labor in the country (Minimum Age Convention 138) in December 2019. A mechanism to submit forced labor complaints became operational in February 2020 although it is unclear if the current military regime is accepting or investigating complaints under this mechanism. Complaints of forced labor made against the military itself are resolved through internal military procedures and the outcome of these complaints are not shared publicly.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount  
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2019 $76.08 billion 2020 N/A www.worldbank.org/en/country
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 N/A 2020 N/A BEA data available at
https://apps.bea.gov/
international/factsheet/
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 -$1 million 2020 N/A BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-
enterprises-comprehensive-data
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 2019 49.8% 2020 N/A UNCTAD data available at
https://unctad.org/topic/investment/
world-investment-report
 

* Source for Host Country Data

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward $29,341,000,000 100% Total Outward     N/A
Singapore $8,487,000,000 29% Country #1 N/A N/A
China, PRC $7,119,000,000 24% Country #2 N/A N/A
Thailand $3,602,000,000 12% Country #3 N/A N/A
Japan $3,142,000,000 11% Country #4 N/A N/A
United Kingdom $1,142,000,000 4% Country #5 N./A N/A
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.

Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Data not available.

Note: The IMF does not provide for Myanmar data on indicator “Total Portfolio Investment, Equity and Investment Fund Shares” or “Total Debt Securities” in the IMF’s Coordinated Portfolio Investment Survey (CPIS).

14. Contact for More Information

Kendra Pace
Economic Officer
U.S. Embassy Rangoon/110 University Avenue/Kamayut Township 11041/Rangoon, Burma +95-1-753-6509
+95-1-753-6509
PaceKE@state.gov 

Cambodia

Executive Summary 

Like in most other countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant adverse impact on Cambodia’s economy. Annual gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by 3.1 percent and per capita GDP fell 10 percent to USD1,519 in 2020. Prior to the pandemic, Cambodia had experienced an extended period of strong economic growth, with average GDP growth of nearly 7 percent over the last two decades, driven by growing exports (particularly in garment and footwear products), increased investment, and domestic consumption. Tourism has been another large contributor to growth, with tourist arrivals reaching 6.61 million in 2019. The World Bank predicts that Cambodia’s economy will begin recovering and grow by 4 percent in 2021, though a COVID outbreak that started in February 2021 has already cost the economy an estimated USD250 million and could prolong the country’s recession.

The government has made it a priority to attract investment from abroad.  Foreign direct investment (FDI) incentives available to investors include 100 percent foreign ownership of companies, corporate tax holidays of up to eight years, a 20 percent corporate tax rate after the incentive period ends, duty-free import of capital goods, and no restrictions on capital repatriation.  In response to COVID-19, the government enacted additional measures to boost competitiveness and support the economy, including a long-awaited consumer protection law, additional tax breaks to the hardest hit businesses (such as those in the tourism and restaurant sectors), and direct aid to people employed in the informal sector. The government also delayed the implementation of a capital gains tax, which was due to go into effect in 2021. A newly established SME Bank of Cambodia will financially support small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Despite these incentives, Cambodia has not attracted significant U.S. investment. Apart from the country’s relatively small market size, other factors dissuading U.S. investors include: systemic corruption, a limited supply of skilled labor, inadequate infrastructure (including high energy costs), a lack of transparency in some government approval processes, and preferential treatment given to companies from certain countries, namely China. Foreign and local investors alike lament the government’s failure to consult the business community on new economic policies and regulations. Notwithstanding these challenges, a number of American companies maintain investments in the country. For example, in December 2016, Coca-Cola officially opened a USD100 million bottling plant in Phnom Penh.

In recent years, Chinese FDI — largely from state-run or associated firms — has surged and has become a significant driver of growth.  The rise in FDI highlights China’s desire for influence in Cambodia, and Southeast Asia more broadly. Chinese businesses, many of which are state-owned enterprises, may not assess the challenges in Cambodia’s business environment in the same manner as U.S. businesses.  In 2019, FDI hit USD3.6 billion – a record – with 43 percent reportedly coming from China.  In 2020, Cambodia signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China and joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement, though neither agreement has been implemented yet.

Physical infrastructure projects, including commercial and residential real estate developments, continue to attract the bulk of FDI. However, there has been some increased investment in manufacturing, including garment and travel goods factories, as well as agro-processing.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 160 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview 
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 144 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings 
Global Innovation Index 2020 110 of 131 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator 
U.S. FDI in Cambodia ($M USD, historical stock positions) 1994 -2020 USD 1.5 billion http://www.cambodiainvestment.gov.kh 
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 USD 1,530 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD 

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment 

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

Cambodia has a liberal foreign investment regime and actively courts FDI. The primary law governing investment is the 1994 Law on Investment. The government permits 100 percent foreign ownership of companies in most sectors. In a handful of sectors, such as cigarette manufacturing, movie production, rice milling, and gemstone mining and processing, foreign investment is subject to local equity participation or prior authorization from authorities.  While there is little or no official legal discrimination against foreign investors, some foreign businesses report disadvantages vis-a-vis Cambodian or other foreign rivals that engage in acts of corruption or tax evasion or take advantage of Cambodia’s weak regulatory environment.

The Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) is the principal government agency responsible for providing incentives to stimulate investment. Investors are required to submit an investment proposal to either the CDC or the Provincial-Municipal Investment Sub-committee to obtain a Qualified Investment Project (QIP) status depending on capital level and location of the investment question.  QIPs are then eligible for specific investment incentives.

The CDC also serves as the secretariat to Cambodia’s Government-Private Sector Forum (G-PSF), a public-private consultation mechanism that facilitates dialogue within and among 10 government/private sector working groups. More information about investment and investment incentives in Cambodia may be found at: www.cambodiainvestment.gov.kh.

Cambodia has created special economic zones (SEZs) to further facilitate foreign investment. As of April 2021, there are 23 SEZs in Cambodia.  These zones provide companies with access to land, infrastructure, and services to facilitate the set-up and operation of businesses. Services provided include utilities, tax services, customs clearance, and other administrative services designed to support import-export processes. Cambodia offers incentives to projects within the SEZs such as tax holidays, zero rate VAT, and import duty exemptions for raw materials, machinery, and equipment. The primary authority responsible for Cambodia’s SEZs is the Cambodia Special Economic Zone Board (CSEZB). The largest of its SEZs is in Sihanoukville and hosts primarily Chinese companies.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

There are few limitations on foreign control and ownership of business enterprises in Cambodia. Foreign investors may own 100 percent of investment projects except in the sectors mentioned Section 1. According to Cambodia’s 2003 Amended Law on Investment and related sub-decrees, there are no limitations based on shareholder nationality or discrimination against foreign investors except in relation to investments in property or state-owned enterprises. For property, both the Law on Investment and the 2003 Amended Law state that the majority of interest in land must be held by one or more Cambodian citizens.  For state-owned enterprises, the Law on Public Enterprise provides that the Cambodian government must directly or indirectly hold more than 51 percent of the capital or the right to vote in state-owned enterprises.

Another limitation concerns the employment of foreigners in Cambodia. A QIP allows employers to obtain visas and work permits for foreign citizens as skilled workers, but the employer may be required to prove to the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training that the skillset is not available in Cambodia. The Cambodian Bar has periodically taken actions to restrict or impede the work of foreign lawyers or foreign law firms in the country.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

The OECD conducted an Investment Policy Review of Cambodia in 2018. The report may be found at this  link .

The World Trade Organization (WTO) last reviewed Cambodia’s trade policies in 2017; the first review was done in 2011.  The 2017 report can be found at this link .

Business Facilitation

All businesses are required to register with the Ministry of Commerce (MOC) and the General Department of Taxation (GDT).  Registration with MOC is possible through an online business registration portal ( link ) that allows all existing and new businesses to register.  Depending on the types of business activity, new businesses may also be required to register with other relevant ministries.  For example, travel agencies must also register with the Ministry of Tourism, and private universities must also register with the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport.  The GDT also has an online portal for tax registration and other services, which can be located here .

The World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Report ranks Cambodia 144 of 190 countries globally for the ease of starting a business. The report notes that it takes nine separate procedures and three months or more to complete all business, tax, and employment registration processes.

Outward Investment

There are no restrictions on Cambodian citizens investing abroad. Some Cambodian companies have invested in neighboring countries – notably, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.

3. Legal Regime 

Transparency of the Regulatory System

In general, Cambodia’s regulatory system, while improving, still lacks transparency. This is the result of the lack of legislation and the limited capacity of key institutions, which is further exacerbated by a weak court system. Investors often complain that the decisions of Cambodian regulatory agencies are inconsistent, arbitrary, or influenced by corruption. For example, in May 2016, in what was perceived as a populist move, the government set caps on retail fuel prices, with little consultation with petroleum companies.  In April 2017, the National Bank of Cambodia introduced an interest rate cap on loans provided by the microfinance industry with no consultation with relevant stakeholders. More recently, investors have regularly expressed concern over draft legislation that has not been subject to stakeholder consultations.

Cambodian ministries and regulatory agencies are not legally obligated to publish the text of proposed regulations before their enactment. Draft regulations are only selectively and inconsistently available for public consultation with relevant non-governmental organizations (NGOs), private sector, or other parties before their enactment. Approved or passed laws are available on websites of some ministries but are not always up to date. The Council of Jurists, the government body that reviews laws and regulations, publishes a list of updated laws and regulations on its website.

International Regulatory Considerations

As a member of ASEAN since 1999, Cambodia is required to comply with certain rules and regulations regarding free trade agreements with the 10 ASEAN member states. These include tariff-free importation of information and communication technology (ICT) equipment, harmonizing custom coding, harmonizing the medical device market, as well as compliance with tax regulations on multi-activity businesses, among others.

As a WTO member, Cambodia has both drafted and modified laws and regulations to comply with WTO rules. Relevant laws and regulations are notified to the WTO legal committee only after their adoption. A list of Cambodian legal updates in compliance with the WTO is described in the above section regarding Investment Policy Reviews.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Although the Cambodian Constitution calls for an independent judiciary, both local and foreign businesses report problems with inconsistent judicial rulings, corruption, and difficulty enforcing judgments. For these reasons, many commercial disputes are resolved through negotiations facilitated by the Ministry of Commerce, the Council for the Development of Cambodia, the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce, and other institutions. Foreign investors often build into their contracts clauses that dictate that investment disputes must be resolved in a third country, such as Singapore.

The Cambodian legal system is primarily based on French civil law. Under the 1993 Constitution, the King is the head of state and the elected Prime Minister is the head of government. Legislative power is vested in a bicameral parliament, while the judiciary makes up the third branch of government. Contractual enforcement is governed by Decree Number 38 D Referring to Contract and Other Liabilities. More information on this decree can be found at this link .

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

Cambodia’s 1994 Law on Investment created an investment licensing system to regulate the approval process for FDI and provide incentives to potential investors. In 2003, the government amended the law to simplify licensing and increase transparency (Amended Law on Investment). Sub-decree No. 111 (2005) lays out detailed procedures for registering a QIP, which is entitled to certain taxation incentives, with the CDC and provincial/municipal investment subcommittees.

Information about investment and investment incentives in Cambodia may be found on the CDC’s website .

Competition and Anti-Trust Laws

A draft antitrust and competition law is reportedly near completion. Once enacted, it will be enforced by Cambodia’s Import-Export Inspection and Fraud Repression Directorate-General (CAMCONTROL). Cambodia enacted a Law on Consumer Protection in November 2019, but it has not been fully implemented as of April 2021.

Expropriation and Compensation

Land rights are a contentious issue in Cambodia, complicated by the fact that most property holders do not have legal documentation of their ownership because of the policies and social upheaval during Khmer Rouge era in the 1970s. Numerous cases have been reported of influential individuals or groups acquiring land titles or concessions through political and/or financial connections and then using force to displace communities to make way for commercial enterprises.

In late 2009, the National Assembly approved the Law on Expropriation, which sets broad guidelines on land-taking procedures for public interest purposes. It defines public interest activities to include construction, rehabilitation, preservation, or expansion of infrastructure  projects, and development of buildings for national defense and civil security. These provisions include construction of border crossing posts, facilities for research and exploitation of natural resources, and oil pipeline and gas networks. Property can also be expropriated for natural disasters and emergencies, as determined by the government. Legal procedures regarding compensation and appeals are expected to be established in a forthcoming sub-decree, which is under internal discussion within the technical team of the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

The government has shown willingness to use tax issues for political purposes. For instance, in 2017, a U.S.-owned independent newspaper had its bank account frozen purportedly for failure to pay taxes. It is believed that, while the company may have had some tax liability, the action taken by the General Department of Taxation, notably an inflated tax assessment, was politically motivated and intended to halt operations. These actions took place at the same time the government took steps to reduce the role of press and independent media in the country as part of a wider anti-democratic crackdown.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Cambodia has been a member of the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States (ICSID Convention) since 2005. Cambodia is also a signatory to the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards 1958 (the New York Convention) since 1960.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

International arbitration is available for Cambodian commercial disputes. In March 2014, the Supreme Court of Cambodia upheld the decision of the Cambodian Court of Appeal, which had ruled in favor of the recognition and enforcement of an arbitral award issued by the Korean Commercial Arbitration Board of Seoul, South Korea. Cambodia became a member of the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes in January 2005.  In 2009, the International Center approved a U.S. investor’s request for arbitration in a case against the Cambodian government, and in 2013, the tribunal rendered an award in favor of Cambodia.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Commercial disputes can also be resolved through the National Commercial Arbitration Center (NCAC), Cambodia’s first alternative dispute resolution mechanism, which was officially launched in March 2013. Arbitral awards issued by foreign arbitrations are admissible in the Cambodian court system. An example can be drawn from its recognition and enforcement of the arbitral award issued by the Korean Commercial Arbitration Board in 2014.

Bankruptcy Regulations

Cambodia’s 2007 Law on Insolvency was intended to provide collective, orderly, and fair satisfaction of creditor claims from debtor properties and, where appropriate, the rehabilitation of the debtor’s business. The law applies to the assets of all businesspeople and legal entities in Cambodia. The World Bank’s 2020 Doing Business Report ranks Cambodia 82 out of 190 countries in terms of the “ease of resolving insolvency.”

In 2012, Credit Bureau Cambodia (CBC) was established in an effort to create a more transparent credit market in the country. CBC’s main role is to provide credit scores to banks and financial institutions and to improve access to credit information.

4. Industrial Policies 

Investment Incentives

Cambodia’s Law on Investment and Amended Law on Investment offers varying types of investment incentives for projects that meet specified criteria. Investors seeking an incentive – for examples, incentives as part of a QIP – must submit an application to the CDC. Investors who wish to apply are required to pay an application fee of KHR 7 million (approximately USD1,750), which covers securing necessary approvals, authorizations, licenses, or registrations from all relevant ministries and entities, including stamp duties. The CDC is required to seek approval from the Council of Ministers for investment proposals that involve capital of USD50 million or more, politically sensitive issues, the exploration and exploitation of mineral or natural resources, or infrastructure concessions. The CDC is also required to seek approval for investment proposals that will have a negative impact on the environment or the government’s long-term strategy.

QIPs are entitled to receive different incentives such as corporate tax holidays; special depreciation allowances; and import tax exemptions on production equipment, construction materials, and production inputs used to produce exports. Investment projects located in designated special promotion zones or export-processing zones are also entitled to the same incentives. Industry-specific investment incentives, such as three-year profit tax exemptions, may be available in the agriculture and agro-industry sectors. More information about the criteria and investment areas eligible for incentives can be found at the following link .

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

To facilitate the country’s development, the Cambodian government has shown great interest in increasing exports via geographically defined special economic zones (SEZs).  Cambodia is currently drafting a law on Special Economic Zones, which is now undergoing technical review within the CDC. There are currently 23 special SEZs, which are located in Phnom Penh, Koh Kong, Kandal, Kampot, Sihanoukville, and the borders of Thailand and Vietnam. The main investment sectors in these zones include garments, shoes, bicycles, food processing, auto parts, motorcycle assembly, and electrical equipment manufacturing.

5. Protection of Property Rights 

Real Property

Mortgages exist in Cambodia and Cambodian banks often require certificates of property ownership as collateral before approving loans. The mortgage recordation system, which is handled by private banks, is generally considered reliable.

Cambodia’s 2001 Land Law provides a framework for real property security and a system for recording titles and ownership. Land titles issued prior to the end of the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79) are not recognized due to the severe dislocations that occurred during that period. The government is making efforts to accelerate the issuance of land titles, but in practice, the titling system is cumbersome, expensive, and subject to corruption. Most property owners lack documentation proving ownership. Even where title records exist, recognition of legal titles to land has not been uniform, and there are reports of court cases in which judges have sought additional proof of ownership.

Foreigners are constitutionally forbidden to own land in Cambodia; however, the 2001 Land Law allows long and short-term leases to foreigners. Cambodia also allows foreign ownership in multi-story buildings, such as condominiums, from the second floor up.  Cambodia was ranked 129 out of 190 economies for ease of registering property in the 2020 World Bank Doing Business Report.

Intellectual Property Rights

Infringement of intellectual property rights (IPR) is prevalent in Cambodia. Counterfeit apparel, footwear, cigarettes, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, and consumer goods, and pirated software, music, and books are some of the examples of IPR-infringing goods found in the country.

Though Cambodia is not a major center for the production or export of counterfeit or pirated materials, local businesses report that the problem is growing because of the lack of enforcement. To date, Cambodia has not been listed by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) in its annual Special 301 Report, which identifies trade barriers to U.S. companies due to the IPR environment.

Cambodia has enacted several laws pursuant to its WTO commitments on intellectual property, including the Law on Marks, Trade Names and Acts of Unfair Competition (2002); the Law on Copyrights and Related Rights (2003); the Law on Patents, Utility Models and Industrial Designs (2003); the Law on Management of Seed and Plant Breeder’s Rights (2008); the Law on Geographical Indications (2014); and the Law on Compulsory Licensing for Public Health (2018).

Cambodia has been a member of WIPO since 1995 and has acceded to several international IPR protocols, including the Paris Convention (1998), the Madrid Protocol (2015), the WIPO Patent Cooperation Treaty (2016), The Hague Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Industrial Design (2017), and the Lisbon Agreement on Appellations of Origin and Geographical Indications (2018).

To combat the trade in counterfeit goods, the Cambodian Counter Counterfeit Committee (CCCC) was established in 2014 under the Ministry of Interior to investigate claims, seize illegal goods, and prosecute counterfeiters. The Economic Police, Customs, the Cambodia Import-Export Inspection and Fraud Repression Directorate General, and the Ministry of Commerce also have IPR enforcement responsibilities; however, the division of responsibility among each agency is not clearly defined. This causes confusion to rights owners and muddles the overall IPR environment.  Though there has been an increase in the number of seizures of counterfeit goods in recent years, in general such actions are not taken unless a formal complaint is made.

In October 2020, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office concluded a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Cambodia on accelerated patent recognition, creating a simplified procedure for U.S. patents to be registered in Cambodia.

For additional information about treaty obligations and points of contact at local IP offices, please see the World Intellectual Property Organization’s country profiles at this link .

6. Financial Sector 

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

In a move designed to address the need for capital markets in Cambodia, the Cambodia Securities Exchange (CSX) was founded in 2011 and started trading in 2012. Though the CSX is one of the world’s smallest securities markets, it has taken steps to increase the number of listed companies, including attracting SMEs. At the end of 2020, market capitalization stood at USD2.5 billion and the average daily trading value averages USD150,000. The CSX currently has seven listed companies: the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority; Taiwanese garment manufacturer Grand Twins International; the Phnom Penh Autonomous Port; the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port; Phnom Penh SEZ Plc; ACLEDA Bank; and Pestech Plc.

In September 2017, the National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) adopted a regulation on Conditions for Banking and Financial Institutions to be listed on the Cambodia Securities Exchange. The regulation sets additional requirements for banks and financial institutions that intend to issue securities to the public. This includes prior approval from the NBC and minimum equity of KHR 60 billion (approximately USD15 million).

Cambodia’s bond market is at the beginning stages of development. The regulatory framework for corporate bonds was bolstered in 2017 through the publication of several regulations covering public offering of debt securities, the accreditation of bondholders’ representatives, and the accreditation of credit rating agencies. The country’s first corporate bond was issued in 2018 by Hattha Kaksekar Limited. Four additional companies have since been added to the bond market: LOLC (Cambodia) Plc.; Advanced Bank of Asia Limited; Phnom Penh Commercial Bank Plc; and RMA (Cambodia) Plc. RMA, which issued its bonds in early 2020, was the first non-bank financial institution to be listed.  There is currently no sovereign bond market, but the government has stated its intention of making government securities available to investors by 2022.

Money and Banking System

The NBC regulates the operations of banking systems in Cambodia. Foreign banks and branches are freely allowed to register and operate in the country. There are 44 commercial banks, 14 specialized banks (set up to finance specific turn-key projects such as real estate development), 74 licensed microfinance institutions (MFIs), and seven licensed microfinance deposit taking institutions in Cambodia. The NBC has also granted licenses to 12 financial leasing companies and one credit bureau company to improve transparency and credit risk management and encourage lending to small- and medium-sized enterprise customers.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cambodia’s banking sector experienced strong growth. The banking sector’s assets, including those of MFIs, rose 21.4 percent year-over-year in 2018 to 139.7 trillion riel (USD34.9 billion), while credit grew 24.3 percent to 81.7 trillion riel (USD20.4 billion). Loans and deposits grew 18.3 percent and 24.5 percent respectively, which resulted in a decrease of the loan-to-deposit ration from 114 percent to 110 percent. The ratio of non-performing loans was measured at 1.6 percent in 2019.

The government does not use the regulation of capital markets to restrict foreign investment. Banks have been free to set their own interest rates since 1995, and increased competition  between local institutions has led to a gradual lowering of interest rates from year to year.  However, in April 2017, at the direction of Prime Minister Hun Sen, the NBC capped interest rates on loans offered by MFIs at 18 percent per annum. The move was designed to protect borrowers, many of whom are poor and uneducated, from excessive interest rates.

In March 2016, the NBC doubled the minimum capital reserve requirement for banks to USD75 million for commercial banks and USD15 million for specialized banks. Based on the new regulations, deposit-taking microfinance institutions now have a USD30 million reserve requirement, while traditional microfinance institutions have a USD1.5 million reserve requirement.

In March 2020, the NBC issued several regulations to ensure liquidity and promote lending amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They include: (1) delaying the implementation of Conservation Capital Buffer (CCB) for financial institutions; (2) reducing the minimum interest rate of Liquidity-Providing Collateralized Operations (LPCO); (3) reducing the interest rates of Negotiable Certificate of Deposit (NCD); (4) reducing the reserve requirement rate (RRR) from 8 percent (KHR) and 12.5 percent (USD) to 7 percent (KHR and USD) for 6 months starting from April 2020; and (5) reducing the liquidity coverage ratio.  The NBC also requested financial institutions to delay dividend payouts in order to preserve financial sector liquidity. The government has also encouraged banks to continue restructuring loans to help avoid defaults. In late 2020, the government announced that businesses in the garment and footwear, tourism, and aviation sectors would continue to receive tax incentives in 2021. In addition, financial institutions’ borrowings from both local and foreign sources will benefit from reduced tax withholdings in 2021.

Financial technology (Fintech) in Cambodia is still at early stage of development. Available technologies include mobile payments, QR codes, and e-wallet accounts for domestic and cross-border payments and transfers. In 2012, the NBC launched retail payments for cheques and credit remittances. A “Fast and Secure Transfer” (FAST) payment system was introduced in 2016 to facilitate instant fund transfers. The Cambodian Shared Switch (CSS) system was launched in October 2017 to facilitate the access to network automated teller machines (ATMs) and point of sale (POS) machines.

In February 2019, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international intergovernmental organization whose purpose is to develop policies to combat money laundering, cited Cambodia for being “deficient” with regard to its anti-money laundering and countering financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) controls and policies and included Cambodia on its “grey list.”  The government committed to working with FATF to address these deficiencies through a jointly developed action plan, although progress to date has not been sufficient and Cambodia remains on the grey list in 2021. Should Cambodia not take appropriate action, FATF could move it to the “black list,” which could negatively impact the cost of capital as well as the banking sector’s ability to access international capital markets.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

Though Cambodia has its own currency, the riel (denoted as KHR), U.S. dollars are in wide circulation in Cambodia and remain the primary currency for most large transactions. There are no restrictions on the conversion of capital for investors.

Cambodia’s 1997 Law on Foreign Exchange states that there shall be no restrictions on foreign exchange operations through authorized banks. Authorized banks are required, however, to report the amount of any transfer equaling or exceeding USD100,000 to the NBC on a regular basis.

Loans and borrowings, including trade credits, are freely contracted between residents and nonresidents, provided that loan disbursements and repayments are made through an authorized intermediary. There are no restrictions on the establishment of foreign currency bank accounts in Cambodia for residents.

The exchange rate between the riel and the U.S. dollar is governed by a managed float and has been stable at around one U.S. dollar to KHR 4,000 for the past several years.  Daily fluctuations of the exchange rate are low, typically under three percent.  The Cambodian government has taken steps to increase general usage of the riel, including phasing out in June 2020 the circulation of small-denominated U.S. dollar bills; however, the country’s economy remains largely dollarized.

Remittance Policies

Article 11 of Cambodia’s 2003 Amended Law on Investment states that QIPs can freely remit abroad foreign currencies purchased through authorized banks for the discharge of financial obligations incurred in connection with investments. These financial obligations include payment for imports and repayment of principal and interest on international loans; payment of royalties and management fees; remittance of profits; and repatriation of invested capital in case of dissolution.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Cambodia does not have a sovereign wealth fund.

7. State-Owned Enterprises 

Cambodia currently has 15 state-owned enterprises (SOEs):  Electricite du Cambodge; Sihanoukville Autonomous Port; Telecom Cambodia; Cambodia Shipping Agency; Cambodia Postal Services; Rural Development Bank; Green Trade Company; Printing House; Siem Reap Water Supply Authority; Construction and Public Work Lab; Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority; Phnom Penh Autonomous Port; Kampuchea Ry Insurance; Cambodia Life Insurance; and the Cambodia Securities Exchange.

In accordance with the Law on General Stature of Public Enterprises, there are two types of commercial SOEs in Cambodia: one that is 100 percent owned by the state; and another that is a joint-venture in which a majority of capital is owned by the state and a minority is owned by private investors.

Each SOE is under the supervision of a line ministry or government institution and is overseen by a board of directors drawn from among senior government officials. Private enterprises are generally allowed to compete with state-owned enterprises under equal terms and conditions.  SOEs are also subject to the same taxes and value-added tax rebate policies as private-sector enterprises. SOEs are covered under the law on public procurement, which was promulgated in January 2012, and their financial reports are audited by the appropriate line ministry, the Ministry of Economy and Finance, and the National Audit Authority.

Privatization Program

There are no ongoing privatization programs, nor has the government announced any plans to privatize existing SOEs.

8. Responsible Business Conduct 

There is a small, but growing awareness of responsible business conduct (RBC) and corporate social responsibility (CSR) among businesses in Cambodia despite the fact that the government does not have explicit policies to promote them. RBC and CSR programs are most commonly found at larger and multinational companies in the country. U.S. companies, for example, have implemented a wide range of CSR activities to promote skills training, the environment, general health and well-being, and financial education. These programs have been warmly received by both the public and the government.

A number of economic land concessions in Cambodia have led to high profile land rights cases. The Cambodian government has recognized the problem, but in general, has not effectively and fairly resolved land rights claims. The Cambodian government does not have a national contact point for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) multinational enterprises guidelines and does not participate in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

Additional Resources

Department of State

Department of Labor

9. Corruption 

Corruption remains a significant issue in Cambodia. In its Global Competitiveness Report 2019, the World Economic Forum ranked Cambodia 134th out of 141 countries for incidence of corruption. Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perception index ranked Cambodia 160 of 180 countries globally, the lowest ranking among ASEAN member states.

Those engaged in business have identified corruption, particularly within the judiciary, customs services, and tax authorities, as one of the greatest deterrents to investment in Cambodia. Foreign investors from countries that overlook or encourage bribery have significant advantages over foreign investors from countries that criminalize such activity.

Cambodia adopted an Anti-Corruption Law in 2010 to combat corruption by criminalizing bribery, abuse of office, extortion, facilitation payments, and accepting bribes in the form of  donations or promises. Under the law, all civil servants must also declare their financial assets to the government every two years. Cambodia’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), established the same year, has investigative powers and a mandate to provide education and training to government institutions and the public on anti-corruption compliance. Since its formation, the ACU has launched a few high-profile prosecutions against public officials, including members of the police and judiciary, and has tackled the issue of ghost workers in the government, in which salaries are collected for non-existent employees.

The ACU, in collaboration with the private sector, has also established guidelines encouraging companies to create internal codes of conduct prohibiting bribery and corrupt practices. Companies can sign an MOU with the ACU pledging to operate corruption-free and to cooperate on anti-corruption efforts. Since the program started in 2015, more than 80 private companies have signed an MOU with the ACU. In 2018, the ACU completed a first draft of a code of conduct for public officials, which has not yet been finalized.

Despite the passage of the Anti-Corruption Law and creation of the ACU, enforcement remains weak. Local and foreign businesses report that they must often make informal payments to expedite business transactions. Since 2013, Cambodia has published the official fees for public services, but the practice of paying additional fees remains common.

UN Anticorruption Convention, OECD Convention on Combatting Bribery

Cambodia ratified the UN Convention against Corruption in 2007 and endorsed the Action Plan of the Asian Development Bank / OECD Anti-Corruption Initiative for Asia and the Pacific in 2003. Cambodia is not a party to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery.

Resources to Report Corruption

Om Yentieng President, Anti-Corruption Unit
No. 54, Preah Norodom Blvd, Sangkat Phsar Thmey 3, Khan Daun Penh, Phnom Penh
Telephone: +855-23-223-954
Email: info@acu.gov.kh

Transparency International Cambodia  #13 Street 554, Phnom Penh
Telephone: +855-23-214430
Email: info@ticambodia.org  10. Political and Security Environment

10. Political and Security Environment 

Foreign companies have been the targets of violent protests in the past, such as the 2003 anti-Thai riots against the Embassy of Thailand and Thai-owned commercial establishments. There were reports that Vietnamese-owned establishments were looted during a January 2014 labor protest. Authorities have also used force, including truncheons, electric cattle prods, fire hoses, and even gunfire, to disperse protestors. Incidents of violence directed at businesses, however, are rare. The Embassy is unaware of any incidents of political violence directed at U.S. or other non-regional interests.

Nevertheless, political tensions remain. After relatively competitive communal elections in June 2017, where Cambodia’s opposition party won 43 percent of available seats, the government banned the opposition party and imprisoned its leader on charges of treason. With no meaningful opposition, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) swept the 2018 national elections, winning all 125 parliamentary seats. The government has also taken steps to limit free speech and stifle independent media, including forcing independent news outlets and radio stations to cease operations. While there are few overt signs the country is growing less secure today, the possibility for insecurity exists going forward, particularly if COVID-driven economic problems persist and if a large percentage of the population remains disenfranchised.  11. Labor Policies and Practices

11. Labor Policies and Practices 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on Cambodia’s labor sector. In particular, Cambodia’s garment and manufacturing sector, which is heavily reliant on global supply chains for inputs and on demand from the United States and Europe, experienced severe disruptions due to COVID-19. The Asian Development Bank estimates that roughly half of Cambodia’s approximately 1 million factory workers experienced some period of furlough in 2020. In addition, approximately 126,000 of Cambodia’s 1.3 million migrant workers returned from abroad (mostly from Thailand) due to COVID-related job losses.

Cambodia’s labor force numbers about 10 million people. A small number of Vietnamese and Thai migrant workers are employed in Cambodia, and – prior to the pandemic – Chinese-run infrastructure and other businesses imported an increasing number of Chinese laborers, who typically earn more than their Cambodian counterparts.

Given the severe disruption to the Cambodian education system and loss of skilled Cambodians during the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge period, there are few Cambodian workers with higher education or specialized skills. Around 65 percent of the population is under the age of 30. The United Nations estimates that around 300,000 new job seekers enter the labor market each year. The agricultural sector employs about 40 percent of the labor force. Some 37 percent of the non-agricultural workforce, or 2.2 million workers, are in the informal economy.

Cambodia’s 2016 Trade Union Law (TUL) erects barriers to freedom of association and the rights to organize and bargain freely. The ILO has stated publicly that the law could hinder Cambodia’s obligations to international labor conventions 87 and 98. To address those concerns, Cambodia passed an amended TUL in early 2020, but the amended law does not fully address ILO, NGO, and union concerns about the law’s curbs on freedom of association. In addition, Cambodia has only implemented and enforced a minimum wage in the export garment and footwear sectors.

Unresolved labor disputes are mediated first on the shop-room floor, after which they are brought to the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training. If reconciliation fails, then the cases may be brought to the Arbitration Council, an independent state body that interprets labor regulations in collective disputes, such as when multiple employees are dismissed. Since the 2016 Trade Union Law went into force, Arbitration Council cases have decreased from over 30 per month to fewer than five, although that number began to increase again in 2019 due to regulatory changes.  12. U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Other Investment Insurance Programs

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics 

There has been a surge in FDI inflows to Cambodia in recent years. Though FDI goes primarily to infrastructure, including commercial and residential real estate projects, it has also recently favored investments in manufacturing and agro-processing. Cambodia reports its FDI at USD4.1 billion in 2020 in terms of fixed assets and registered capital.

Investment into Cambodia is dominated by China, and the level of investment from China has surged especially the last five years. Cambodia reports that its stock of FDI from China reached USD19.5 billion by the end of 2020. Other major sources of FDIs in Cambodia include the United Kingdom (USD4 billion), Malaysia (USD4.4 billion), and Korea (USD5.4 billion), through 2020.

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy 
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Cambodia Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2020 NA billion 2020 $25.4 billion www.worldbank.org/en/country 
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in Cambodia ($M USD, stock positions) 2020 $1,515 2017 $517 BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data 
Cambodia’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) N/A N/A 2017 $5 BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data 
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 2020 169% 2019 127.5% UNCTAD data available at https://unctad.org/en/Pages/DIAE/
World%20Investment%20Report/
Country-Fact-Sheets.aspx 

* Source for Host Country Data: The Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) provides official government data on investment in Cambodia, but not all data is published online. See: www.cambodiainvestment.gov.kh/why-invest-in-cambodia/investment-enviroment/investment-trend.html 

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI 
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data (through 2018)
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward 23,246 100% Total Outward 840 100%
China 6,786 29.2% South Africa 310 37%
Korea 1,934 8.3% China 260 31%
Vietnam 1,880 8% Singapore 225 27%
Hong Kong 1,688 7.3% Philippines 31 3.7%
Taiwan 1,629 7% Myanmar 17 2%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.

Data retrieved from IMF’s Coordinated Direct Investment Survey database presents a much different picture of FDI into Cambodia as compared to that provided by the Cambodian government. For example, the Council for Development of Cambodia reports USD38.5 billion stock FDI in term of fixed asset through year-end 2018, while the IMF reports only USD23 billion.

14. Contact for More Information 

David Ryan Sequeira, CFA
Economic Officer
U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh
No. 1, Street 96, Sangkat Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phone: (855) 23-728-401
Email: CamInvestment@state.gov

China

Executive Summary

In 2020, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) became the top global Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) destination. As the world’s second-largest economy, with a large consumer base and integrated supply chains, China’s economic recovery following COVID-19 reassured investors and contributed to higher FDI and portfolio investments. In 2020, China took significant steps toward implementing commitments made to the United States on a wide range of IP issues and made some modest openings in its financial sector. China also concluded key trade agreements and implemented important legislation, including the Foreign Investment Law (FIL).

China remains, however, a relatively restrictive investment environment for foreign investors due to restrictions in key economic sectors. Obstacles to investment include ownership caps and requirements to form joint venture partnerships with local Chinese firms, industrial policies such as Made in China 2025 (MIC 2025) that target development of indigenous capacity, as well as pressure on U.S. firms to transfer technology as a prerequisite to gaining market access. PRC COVID-19 visa and travel restrictions significantly affected foreign businesses operations increasing their labor and input costs. Moreover, an increasingly assertive Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and emphasis on national companies and self-reliance has heightened foreign investors’ concerns about the pace of economic reforms.

Key investment announcements and new developments in 2020 included:

On January 1, the FIL went into effect and effectively replaced previous laws governing foreign investment.

On January 15, the U.S. and China concluded the Economic and Trade Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the People’s Republic of China (the Phase One agreement). Under the agreement, China committed to reforms in its intellectual property regime, prohibit forced transfer technology as a condition for market access, and made some openings in the financial and energy sector. China also concluded the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement on November 15 and reached a political agreement with the EU on the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) on December 30.

In mid-May, PRC leader Xi Jinping announced China’s “dual circulation” strategy, intended to make China less export-oriented and more focused on the domestic market.

On June 23, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) announced new investment “negative lists” to guide foreign FDI.

Market openings were coupled, however, with restrictions on investment, such as the Rules on Security Reviews on Foreign InvestmentsChina’s revised investment screening mechanism.

While Chinese pronouncements of greater market access and fair treatment of foreign investment are welcome, details and effective implementation are still needed to ensure foreign investors truly experience equitable treatment.

 

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings

 

Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 78 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview 
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 31 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings 
Global Innovation Index 2020 14 of 131 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator 
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2020 USD 116.2 https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/ 
World Bank GNI per capita 2020 USD 10,410 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD 

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

One of China’s WTO accession commitments was to establish an official journal dedicated to the publication of laws, regulations, and other measures pertaining to or affecting trade in goods, services, trade related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS), and the control of foreign exchange.  Despite mandatory 30-day public comment periods, Chinese ministries continue to post only some draft administrative regulations and departmental rules online, often with a public comment period of less than 30 days. As part of the Phase One Agreement, China committed to providing at least 45 days for public comment on all proposed laws, regulations, and other measures implementing the Phase One Agreement. While China has made some progress, U.S. businesses operating in China consistently cite arbitrary legal enforcement and the lack of regulatory transparency among the top challenges of doing business in China.

In China’s state-dominated economic system, the relationships are often blurred between the CCP, the Chinese government, Chinese business (state- and private-owned), and other Chinese stakeholders.  Foreign-invested enterprises (FIEs) perceive that China prioritizes political goals, industrial policies, and a desire to protect social stability at the expense of foreign investors, fairness, and the rule of law.  The World Bank   Global Indicators of Regulatory Governance gave China a composite score of 1.75 out 5 points, attributing China’s relatively low score to stakeholders not having easily accessible and updated laws and regulations; the lack of impact assessments conducted prior to issuing new laws; and other concerns about transparency.

For accounting standards, Chinese companies use the Chinese Accounting Standards for Business Enterprises (ASBE) for all financial reporting within mainland China. Companies listed overseas or in Hong Kong may choose to use ASBE, the International Financial Reporting Standards, or Hong Kong Financial Reporting Standards.

International Regulatory Considerations

As part of its WTO accession agreement, China agreed to notify the WTO Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) of all draft technical regulations.  However, China continues to issue draft technical regulations without proper notification to the TBT Committee.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

The Chinese legal system borrows heavily from continental European legal systems, but with “Chinese characteristics.”  The rules governing commercial activities are found in various laws, regulations, administrative rules, and Supreme People’s Court (SPC) judicial interpretations, among other sources. While China does not have specialized commercial courts, it has created specialized courts and tribunals for the hearing of intellectual property disputes (IP), including in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Hainan.  In 2020, the original IP Courts continued to be popular destinations for both Chinese and foreign-related IP civil and administrative litigation, with the IP court in Shanghai experiencing a year-on-year increase of above 100 percent. China’s constitution and laws, however, are clear that Chinese courts cannot exercise power independent of the Party.  Further, in practice, influential businesses, local governments, and regulators routinely influence courts.  U.S. companies may hesitate in challenging administrative decisions or bringing commercial disputes before local courts due to perceptions of futility or fear of government retaliation.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

China’s new investment law, the FIL, came into force on January 1, 2020, replacing China’s previous foreign investment framework. The FIL provides a five-year transition period for foreign enterprises established under previous foreign investment laws, after which all foreign enterprises will be subject to the same domestic laws as Chinese companies, such as the Company Law. The FIL standardized the regulatory regimes for foreign investment by including the negative list management system, a foreign investment information reporting system, and a foreign investment security review system all under one document. The FIL also seeks to address foreign investors complaints by explicitly banning forced technology transfers, promising better IPR, and the establishment of a complaint mechanism for investors to report administrative abuses. However, foreign investors remain concerned that the FIL and its implementing regulations provide Chinese ministries and local officials significant regulatory discretion, including the ability to retaliate against foreign companies.

In December 2020, China also issued a revised investment screening mechanism under the Rules on Security Reviews on Foreign Investments without any period for public comment or prior consultation with the business community. Foreign investors complained that China’s new rules on investment screening were expansive in scope, lacked an investment threshold to trigger a review, and included green field investments – unlike most other countries. Moreover, new guidance on Neutralizing Extra-Territorial Application of Unjustified Foreign Legislation Measures, a measure often compared to “blocking statutes” from other markets, added to foreign investors’ concerns over the legal challenges they would face in trying to abide by both their host-country’s regulations and China’s. Foreign investors complained that market access in China was increasingly undermined by national security-related legislation. In 2020, the State Council and various central and local government agencies issued over 1000 substantive administrative regulations and departmental/local rules on foreign investment. While not comprehensive, a list of published and official Chinese laws and regulations is available here .

FDI Requirements for Investment Approvals

Foreign investments in industries and economic sectors that are not explicitly restricted on China’s negative lists do not require MOFCOM pre-approval.  However, investors have complained that in practice, investing in an industry not on the negative list does not guarantee a foreign investor “national treatment,” or treatment no less favorable than treatment accorded to a similarly situated domestic investor.  Foreign investors must still comply with other steps and approvals such as receiving land rights, business licenses, and other necessary permits.  When a foreign investment needs ratification from the NDRC or a local development and reform commission, that administrative body is in charge of assessing the project’s compliance with a panoply of Chinese laws and regulations.  In some cases, NDRC also solicits the opinions of relevant Chinese industrial regulators and consulting agencies acting on behalf of Chinese domestic firms, creating potential conflicts of interest disadvantageous to foreign firms.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

To attract foreign investment, different provinces and municipalities offer preferential packages like a temporary reduction in taxes, import/export duties, land use, research and development subsidies, and funding for initial startups.  Often, these packages stipulate that foreign investors must meet certain benchmarks for exports, local content, technology transfer, and other requirements.  However, many economic sectors that China deems sensitive due to broadly defined national or economic security concerns remain closed to foreign investment.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

In 2013, the State Council announced the Shanghai pilot FTZ to provide open and high-standard trade and investment services to foreign companies. China gradually scaled up its FTZ pilot program to a total of 20 FTZs and one Free Trade Port.  China’s FTZs are in: Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangdong, Fujian, Chongqing, Hainan, Henan, Hubei, Liaoning, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shandong, Hebei, Heilongjiang, Guangxi, Yunnan provinces, Beijing, Shanghai FTZ Lingang Special Area and Hainan Free Trade Port.  The goal of China’s FTZs/FTP is to provide a trial ground for trade and investment liberalization measures and to introduce service sector reforms, especially in financial services, that China expects to eventually introduce in other parts of the domestic economy. The FTZs promise foreign investors “national treatment” investment in industries and sectors not listed on China’s negative lists.  However, the 2020 FTZ negative list lacked substantive changes, and many foreign firms report that in practice, the degree of liberalization in FTZs is comparable to opportunities in other parts of China.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

The Chinese state owns all urban land, and only the state can issue long-term land leases to individuals and companies, including foreigners, subject to many restrictions.  Chinese property law stipulates that residential property rights renew automatically, while commercial and industrial grants renew if it does not conflict with other public interest claims. Several foreign investors have reported revocation of land use rights so that Chinese developers could pursue government-designated building projects.  Investors often complain about insufficient compensation in these cases.  In rural China, the registration system suffers from unclear ownership lines and disputed border claims, often at the expense of local farmers whom village leaders exclude in favor of “handshake deals” with commercial interests.  China’s Securities Law defines debtor and guarantor rights, including rights to mortgage certain types of property and other tangible assets, including long-term leases.  Chinese law does not prohibit foreigners from buying non-performing debt, but it must be acquired through state-owned asset management firms, and it is difficult to liquidate.

Intellectual Property Rights

China remained on the USTR Special 301 Report Priority Watch List in 2020 and was subject to continued Section 306 monitoring. Multiple Chinese physical and online markets were included in the 2020 USTR Review of Notorious Markets for Counterfeiting and Piracy. Of note, in 2020, China did take significant steps toward addressing long-standing U.S. concerns on a wide range of IP issues, from patents, to trademarks, to copyrights and trade secrets. The reforms addressed the granting and protection of IP rights as well as their enforcement, and included changes made in support of the Phase One Trade Agreement. In April 2020, China National Intellectual Property Administration (CNIPA) issued the 2020-2021 Plan for Implementing the Opinions on Strengthening IP Protection which contained 133 specific “steps” that CNIPA and other Chinese government entities intended to take in 2020 and 2021 – to strengthen IP protection and implement China’s IP-related commitments under Phase One. The 2020-2021 Implementing Plan, together with the work plans of the SPC’s and IP-related administrative organs, portended a year of aggressive IP reforms in China. The Chinese legislative, administrative, and judicial organs issued over 60 new and amended measures related to IP protection and enforcement, in both draft and final form, including amendments to core IP laws, such as the Copyright Law, the Patent Law, and the Criminal Law. Updates also included administrative measures addressing trademark and patent protection and enforcement, as well as enforcement of copyright and trade secrets.

Despite these reforms, IP rights remain subject to Chinese government policy objectives, which appear to have intensified in 2020. For U.S. companies in China, infringement remained both rampant and a low-risk “business strategy” for bad-faith actors. Further enforcement and regulatory authorities continue to signal to U.S. rights holders that application of China’s IP system remains subject to the discretion of the PRC government and its policy goals. High-level remarks by PRC leader Xi Jinping and senior leaders signaled China’s commitment to cracking down on IP infringement in the years ahead. However, they also reflected China’s vision of the IP system as an important tool for eliminating foreign ownership of critical technology and ensuring national security. While on paper China’s IP protection and enforcement mechanisms have inched closer to near parity with other foreign markets, in practice, fair, transparent, and non-discriminatory treatment will very likely continue to be denied to U.S. rights holders whose IP ownership and exploitation impede PRC industrial policy goals.

For detailed information on China’s environment for IPR protection and enforcement, please see the following reports:

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

China’s leadership has stated that it seeks to build a modern, highly developed, and multi-tiered capital market.  Since their founding over three decades ago, the Shanghai and Shenzhen Exchanges, combined, are ranked the third largest stock market in the world with over USD11 trillion in assets, according to statistics from World Federation of Exchanges.  China’s bond market has similarly expanded significantly to become the second largest worldwide, totaling approximately USD17 trillion.  In 2020, China fulfilled its promises to open certain financial sectors such as securities, asset management, and life insurance. Direct investment by private equity and venture capital firms has increased but has also faced setbacks due to China’s capital controls, which obfuscate the repatriation of returns. As of 2020, 54 sovereign entities and private sector firms, including BMW and Xiaomi Corporation, have since issued roughly USD41 billion in “Panda Bonds,” Chinese renminbi (RMB)-denominated debt issued by foreign entities in China.  China’s private sector can also access credit via bank loans, bond issuance, trust products, and wealth management. However, the vast majority of bank credit is disbursed to state-owned firms, largely due to distortions in China’s banking sector that have incentivized lending to state-affiliated entities over their private sector counterparts.  China has been an IMF Article VIII member since 1996 and generally refrains from restrictions on payments and transfers for current international transactions.  However, the government has used administrative and preferential policies to encourage credit allocation towards national priorities, such as infrastructure investments.

Money and Banking System

China’s monetary policy is run by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), China’s central bank.  The PBOC has traditionally deployed various policy tools, such as open market operations, reserve requirement ratios, benchmark rates and medium-term lending facilities, to control credit growth.  The PBOC had previously also set quotas on how much banks could lend but ended the practice in 1998.  As part of its efforts to shift towards a more market-based system, the PBOC announced in 2019 that it will reform its one-year loan prime rate (LPR), which would serve as an anchor reference for other loans.  The one-year LPR is based on the interest rate that 18 banks offer to their best customers and serves as the benchmark for rates provided for other loans.  In 2020, the PBOC requested financial institutions to shift towards use of the one-year LPR for their outstanding floating-rate loan contracts from March to August. Despite these measures to move towards more market-based lending, China’s financial regulators still influence the volume and destination of Chinese bank loans through “window guidance” – unofficial directives delivered verbally – as well as through mandated lending targets for key economic groups, such as small and medium sized enterprises. In 2020, the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC) also began issuing laws to regulate online lending by banks including internet companies such as Ant Financial and Tencent, which had previously not been subject to banking regulations.

The CBIRC oversees China’s 4,607 lending institutions, about USD49 trillion in total assets.  China’s “Big Five” – Agricultural Bank of China, Bank of China, Bank of Communications, China Construction Bank, and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China – dominate the sector and are largely stable, but over the past year, China has experienced regional pockets of banking stress, especially among smaller lenders.  Reflecting the level of weakness among these banks, in November 2020, the PBOC announced in “China Financial Stability Report 2020” that 12.4 percent of the 4400 banking financial institutions received a “fail” rating (high risk) following an industry-wide review in 2019.  The assessment deemed 378 firms, all small and medium sized rural financial institutions, “extremely risky.”  The official rate of non-performing loans among China’s banks is relatively low: 1.92 percent as of the end of 2020.  However, analysts believed the actual figure may be significantly higher.  Bank loans continue to provide the majority of credit options (reportedly around 60.2 percent in 2020) for Chinese companies, although other sources of capital, such as corporate bonds, equity financing, and private equity are quickly expanding in scope, reach, and sophistication in China.

As part of a broad campaign to reduce debt and financial risk, Chinese regulators have implemented measures to rein in the rapid growth of China’s “shadow banking” sector, which includes wealth management and trust products.  These measures have achieved positive results. In December 2020, CBIRC published the first “Shadow Banking Report,” and claimed that the size of China’s shadow banking had shrunk sharply since 2017 when China started tightening the sector. By the end of 2019, the size of China’s shadow banking by broad measurement dropped to 84.8 trillion yuan from the peak of 100.4 trillion yuan in early 2017. Shadow banking to GDP ratio had also dropped to 86 percent at the end of 2019, yet the report did not provide statistics beyond 2019. Foreign owned banks can now establish wholly-owned banks and branches in China, however, onerous licensing requirements and an industry dominated by local players, have limited foreign banks market penetration. Foreigners are eligible to open a bank account in China but are required to present a passport and/or Chinese government issued identification.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

While the central bank’s official position is that companies with proper documentation should be able to freely conduct business, in practice, companies have reported challenges and delays in obtaining approvals for foreign currency transactions by sub-national regulatory branches. Chinese authorities instituted strict capital control measures in 2016, when China recorded a surge in capital flight.  China has since announced that it would gradually reduce those controls, but market analysts expect they would be re-imposed if capital outflows accelerate again. Chinese foreign exchange rules cap the maximum amount of RMB individuals are allowed to convert into other currencies at approximately USD50,000 each year and restrict them from directly transferring RMB abroad without prior approval from the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE).  SAFE has not reduced the USD50,000 quota, but during periods of higher-than-normal capital outflows, banks are reportedly instructed by SAFE to increase scrutiny over individuals’ requests for foreign currency and to require additional paperwork clarifying the intended use of the funds, with the intent of slowing capital outflows. China’s exchange rate regime is managed within a band that allows the currency to rise or fall by 2 percent per day from the “reference rate” set each morning.

Remittance Policies

According to China’s FIL, as of January 1, 2020, funds associated with any forms of investment, including profits, capital gains, returns from asset disposal, IPR loyalties, compensation, and liquidation proceeds, may be freely converted into any world currency for remittance. Based on the “2020 Guidance for Foreign Exchange Business under the Current Account” released by SAFE in August, firms do not need any supportive documents or proof that it is under USD50,000. For remittances over USD50,000, firms need to submit supportive documents and taxation records.  Under Chinese law, FIEs do not need pre-approval to open foreign exchange accounts and are allowed to retain income as foreign exchange or convert it into RMB without quota requirements. The remittance of profits and dividends by FIEs is not subject to time limitations, but FIEs need to submit a series of documents to designated banks for review and approval.  The review period is not fixed and is frequently completed within one or two working days of the submission of complete documents.  For remittance of interest and principal on private foreign debt, firms must submit an application, a foreign debt agreement, and the notice on repayment of the principal and interest.  Banks will then check if the repayment volume is within the repayable principal.  There are no specific rules on the remittance of royalties and management fees. Based on guidance for remittance of royalties and management fees, firms shall submit relevant contracts and invoice.  In October 2020, SAFE cut the reserve requirement for foreign currency transactions from 20 percent to zero, reducing the cost of foreign currency transactions as well as easing Renminbi appreciation pressure.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

China officially has only one sovereign wealth fund (SWF), the China Investment Corporation (CIC), which was launched in 2007 to help diversify China’s foreign exchange reserves. CIC is ranked the second largest SWF by total assets by Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute (SWFI). With USD200 billion in initial registered capital, CIC manages over USD1.04 trillion in assets as of 2020 and invests on a 10-year time horizon.  CIC has since evolved into three subsidiaries:

  • CIC International was established in September 2011 with a mandate to invest in and manage overseas assets.  It conducts public market equity and bond investments, hedge fund, real estate, private equity, and minority investments as a financial investor.
  • CIC Capital was incorporated in January 2015 with a mandate to specialize in making direct investments to enhance CIC’s investments in long-term assets.
  • Central Huijin makes equity investments in Chinese state-owned financial institutions.

China also operates other funds that function in part like sovereign wealth funds, including: China’s National Social Security Fund, with an estimated USD372 billion in assets; the China-Africa Development Fund (solely funded by the China Development Bank), with an estimated USD10 billion in assets; the SAFE Investment Company, with an estimated USD417.8 billion in assets; and China’s state-owned Silk Road Fund, established in December 2014 with USD40 billion in assets to foster investment in BRI partner countries.  Chinese state-run funds do not report the percentage of their assets that are invested domestically.  However, Chinese state-run funds follow the voluntary code of good practices known as the Santiago Principles and participate in the IMF-hosted International Working Group on SWFs. While CIC affirms that they do not have any formal government guidance to invest funds consistent with industrial policies or designated projects, CIC is still expected to pursue government objectives.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

China has approximately 150,000 wholly-owned SOEs, of which 50,000 are owned by the central government, and the remainder by local or provincial governments.  SOEs, both central and local, account for 30 to 40 percent of total gross domestic product (GDP) and about 20 percent of China’s total employment.  Non-financial SOE assets totaled roughly USD30 trillion.  SOEs can be found in all sectors of the economy, from tourism to heavy industries.  State funds are spread throughout the economy and the state may also be the majority or controlling shareholder in an ostensibly private enterprise.  China’s leading SOEs benefit from preferential government policies aimed at developing bigger and stronger “national champions.” SOEs enjoy favored access to essential economic inputs (land, hydrocarbons, finance, telecoms, and electricity) and exercise considerable power in markets like steel and minerals.  SOEs have long enjoyed preferential access to credit and the ability to issue publicly traded equity and debt.  A comprehensive, published list of all Chinese SOEs does not exist.

PRC officials have indicated China intends to utilize OECD guidelines to improve the SOEs independence and professionalism, including relying on Boards of Directors that are free from political influence.  Other recent reforms have included salary caps, limits on employee benefits, and attempts to create stock incentive programs for managers who have produced mixed results.  However, analysts believe minor reforms will be ineffective if SOE administration and government policy remain intertwined, and Chinese officials make minimal progress in primarily changing the regulation and business conduct of SOEs.  SOEs continue to hold dominant shares in their respective industries, regardless of whether they are strategic, which may further restrain private investment in the economy.  Among central SOEs managed by the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), senior management positions are mainly filled by senior party members who report directly to the CCP, and double as the company’s party secretary.  SOE executives often outrank regulators in the CCP rank structure, which minimizes the effectiveness of regulators in implementing reforms.  The lack of management independence and the controlling ownership interest of the state make SOEs de facto arms of the government, subject to government direction and interference.  SOEs are rarely the defendant in legal disputes, and when they are, they almost always prevail.  U.S. companies often complain about the lack of transparency and objectivity in commercial disputes with SOEs.

Privatization Program

Since 2013, the PRC government has periodically announced reforms to SOEs that included selling SOE shares to outside investors or a mixed ownership model, in which private companies invest in SOEs and outside managers are hired.  The government has tried these approaches to improve SOE management structures, emphasize the use of financial benchmarks, and gradually infuse private capital into some sectors traditionally monopolized by SOEs like energy, finance, and telecommunications.  In practice, however, reforms have been gradual, as the PRC government has struggled to implement its SOE reform vision and often preferred to utilize a SOE consolidation approach.  Recently, Xi and other senior leaders have increasingly focused reform efforts on strengthening the role of the state as an investor or owner of capital, instead of the old SOE model in which the state was more directly involved in managing operations.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

Additional Resources

 

Department of State

Department of Labor

Since 2016, China established an RBC platform but general awareness of RBC standards (including environmental, social, and governance issues) is a relatively new concept, especially for companies that exclusively operate in China’s domestic market.  Chinese laws that regulate business conduct use voluntary compliance, are often limited in scope, and are frequently cast aside when other economic priorities supersede RBC priorities.  In addition, China lacks mature and independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs), investment funds, independent worker unions, and other business associations that promote RBC, further contributing to the general lack of awareness.  The Foreign NGO Law remains a concern for U.S. organizations, including those looking to promote RBC and corporate social responsibility (CSR) best practices, due to restrictions the Law places on their operations in China.  For U.S. investors looking to partner with a Chinese firm or expand operations, finding partners that meet internationally recognized standards in areas like labor rights, environmental protection, and manufacturing best practices can be a significant challenge.  However, the Chinese government has placed greater emphasis on protecting the environment and elevating sustainability as a key priority, resulting in more Chinese companies adding environmental concerns to their CSR initiatives.  As part of these efforts, Chinese ministries have signed several memoranda of understanding with international organizations such as the OECD to cooperate on RBC initiatives.

9. Corruption

Since 2012, China has undergone a large-scale anti-corruption campaign, with investigations reaching into all sectors of the government, military, and economy.  CCP General Secretary Xi labeled endemic corruption an “existential threat” to the very survival of the Party.  In 2018, the CCP restructured its Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) to become a state organ, calling the new body the National Supervisory Commission-Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (NSC-CCDI). The NSC-CCDI wields the power to investigate any public official.  From 2012 to 2020, the NSC-CCDI claimed it investigated 3.4 million cases. In 2020, the NSC-CCDI investigated 618,000 cases and disciplined 522,000 individuals, of whom 41 were at or above the provincial or ministerial level. Since 2014, the PRC’s overseas fugitive-hunting campaign, called “Operation Skynet,” has led to the capture of more than 8,350 fugitives suspected of corruption who were living in other countries, including over 2,200 CCP members and government employees. In most cases, the PRC did not notify host countries of these operations.  In 2020, the government reported apprehending 1,421 alleged fugitives and recovering approximately USD457 million through this program.

In June 2020 the CCP passed a law on Administrative Discipline for Public Officials, continuing their effort to strengthen supervision over individuals working in the public sector. The law further enumerates targeted illicit activities such as bribery and misuse of public funds or assets for personal gain. The CCP also issued Amendment 11 to the Criminal Law, which increased the maximum punishment for acts of corruption committed by private entities to life imprisonment, from the previous maximum of 15-year imprisonment. Anecdotal information suggests the PRC’s anti-corruption crackdown is inconsistently and discretionarily applied, raising concerns among foreign companies in China.  For example, to fight rampant commercial corruption in the medical/pharmaceutical sector, the PRC’s health authority issued “blacklists” of firms and agents involved in commercial bribery, including several foreign companies. While central government leadership has welcomed increased public participation in reporting suspected corruption at lower levels, direct criticism of central government leadership or policies remains off-limits and is seen as an existential threat to China’s political and social stability.  China ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption in 2005 and participates in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and OECD anti-corruption initiatives. China has not signed the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery, although Chinese officials have expressed interest in participating in the OECD Working Group on Bribery meetings as an observer.

 

Resources to Report Corruption

The following government organization receives public reports of corruption:   Anti-Corruption Reporting Center of the CCP Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the Ministry of Supervision, Telephone Number:  +86 10 12388.   10. Political and Security Environment

10. Political and Security Environment

Foreign companies operating in China face a low risk of political violence.  However, the ongoing PRC crackdown on virtually all opposition voices in Hong Kong and continued attempts by PRC organs to intimidate Hong Kong’s judges threatens the judicial independence of Hong Kong’s courts – a fundamental pillar for Hong Kong’s status as an international hub for investment into and out of China.  The CCP also punished companies that expressed support for Hong Kong protesters – most notably, a Chinese boycott of the U.S. National Basketball Association after one team’s general manager expressed his personal view supporting Hong Kong protesters. Apart from Hong Kong, the PRC government has also previously encouraged protests or boycotts of products from countries like the United States, South Korea, Japan, Norway, Canada, and the Philippines, in retaliation for unrelated policy decisions such as the boycott campaigns against Korean retailer Lotte in 2016 and 2017 in response to the South Korean government’s decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD); and the PRC’s retaliation against Canadian companies and citizens for Canada’s arrest of Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou. PRC authorities also have broad authority to prohibit travelers from leaving China and have imposed “exit bans” to compel U.S. citizens to resolve business disputes, force settlement of court orders, or facilitate PRC investigations. U.S. citizens, including children, not directly involved in legal proceedings or wrongdoing have also been subject to lengthy exit bans in order to compel family members or colleagues to cooperate with Chinese courts or investigations. Exit bans are often issued without notification to the foreign citizen or without clear legal recourse to appeal the exit ban decision.     11. Labor Policies and Practices

11. Labor Policies and Practices

For U.S. companies operating in China, finding, developing, and retaining domestic talent at the management and skilled technical staff levels remain challenging for foreign firms, especially as labor costs, including salaries and inputs continue to rise. Foreign companies also complain of difficulty navigating China’s labor and social insurance laws, including local implementation guidelines. Compounding the complexity, due to ineffective enforcement of labor laws, Chinese domestic employers often hire local employees without contracts, putting foreign firms at a disadvantage.  Without written contracts, workers struggle to prove employment, thus losing basic protections such as severance if terminated.  The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is the only union recognized under PRC law.  Establishing independent trade unions is illegal.  The law allows for “collective bargaining,” but in practice, focuses solely on collective wage negotiations.  The Trade Union Law gives the ACFTU, a CCP organ chaired by a member of the Politburo, control over all union organizations and activities, including enterprise-level unions.  ACFTU enterprise unions require employers to pay mandatory fees, often through the local tax bureau, equaling a negotiated minimum of 0.5 percent to a standard two percent of total payroll.  While labor laws do not protect the right to strike, “spontaneous” worker protests and work stoppages occur.  Official forums for mediation, arbitration, and other similar mechanisms of alternative dispute resolution often are ineffective in resolving labor disputes.  Even when an arbitration award or legal judgment is obtained, getting local authorities to enforce judgments is problematic.

The PRC has not ratified the International Labor Organization conventions on freedom of association, collective bargaining, or forced labor, but it has ratified conventions prohibiting child labor and employment discrimination. Uyghurs and members of other minority groups are subjected to forced labor in Xinjiang and throughout China via PRC government-facilitated labor transfer programs. In 2020, the U.S. government took additional actions to prevent the importation of products produced by forced labor into the United States, including by issuing a Xinjiang supply chain business advisory that outlined the legal, economic, and reputational risks of forced labor exposure in China-based supply chains. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection bureau issued multiple Withhold Release Orders  barring importation into the United States of products produced in Xinjiang, which were determined to be produced with prison or forced labor in violation of U.S. import laws.  The Commerce Department added Chinese commercial and government entities to its Entity List for their complicity in human rights abuses and the Department of Treasury sanctioned the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps to hold human rights abusers accountable in Xinjiang. Some PRC firms continued to employ North Korean workers in violation of UN Security Council sanctions.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

 

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy

Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2020 $14,724,435 2019 $14,343,000 www.worldbank.org/en/country 
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 $87,880 2019 $116,200 BEA data available at https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/ 
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 $7,721,700 2019 $37,700 BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data 
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 2020 $16.5% 2019 12.4% UNCTAD data available at https://unctadstat.unctad.org/wds/TableViewer/tableView.aspx  https://unctadstat.unctad.org/CountryProfile/GeneralProfile/en-GB/156/index.html 

* Source for Host Country Data:

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI

Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward $2,938,482 100% Total Outward $2,198,881 100%
China, P.R., Hong Kong $1,430,303 48.7% China, P.C., Hong Kong $1,132,549 51.5%
British Virgin Islands $316,836 10.8% Cayman Islands $259,614 11.8%
Japan $147,881 5.0% British Virgin Islands $127,297 5.8%
Singapore $102,458 3.5% United States $67,855 3.1%
Germany $67,879 2.3% Singapore $38,105 1.7%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.

Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment

Portfolio Investment Assets
Top Five Destinations (Millions, current US Dollars)
Total Equity Securities Total Debt Securities
All Countries $645,981 100% All Countries $373,780 100% All Countries $272,201 100%
China, P. R.: Hong Kong $226,426 35% China, P. R.: Hong Kong $166,070 44% United States $68,875 25%
United States $162,830 25% United States $93,955 25% China, P. R.: Hong Kong $60,356 22%
Cayman Islands $55,086 9% Cayman Islands $36,192 10% British Virgin Islands $43,486 16%
British Virgin Islands $45,883 7% United Kingdom $11,226 3% Cayman Islands $18,894 7%
United Kingdom $21,805 3% Luxembourg $9,092 2% United Kingdom $10,579 4%

14. Contact for More Information

U.S.  Embassy Beijing Economic Section

55 Anjialou Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, P.R.  China  +86 10 8531 3000

+86 10 8531 3000

Hong Kong

Executive Summary

Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on July 1, 1997, with its status defined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.  Under the concept of “one country, two systems,” the PRC government promised that Hong Kong will retain its political, economic, and judicial systems for 50 years after reversion.  The PRC’s imposition of the National Security Law (NSL) on June 30, 2020 undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy and introduced heightened uncertainty for foreign and local firms operating in Hong Kong.  As a result, the U.S. Government has taken measures to eliminate or suspend Hong Kong’s preferential treatment and special trade status, including suspension of most export control waivers, revocation of reciprocal shipping income tax exemption treatments, establishment of a new marking rule requiring goods made in Hong Kong to be labeled “Made in China,”  and imposition of sanctions against former and current Hong Kong government officials.

On July 16, 2021, the Department of State, along with the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Homeland Security, issued an advisory to U.S. businesses regarding potential risks to their operations and activities in Hong Kong.

 

Since the enactment of the NSL in Hong Kong, U.S. citizens traveling or residing in Hong Kong may be subject to increased levels of surveillance, as well as arbitrary enforcement of laws and detention for purposes other than maintaining law and order.

On economic issues, Hong Kong generally pursues a free market philosophy with minimal government intervention.  The Hong Kong government (HKG) generally welcomes foreign investment, neither offering special incentives nor imposing disincentives for foreign investors.

Hong Kong provides for no distinction in law or practice between investments by foreign-controlled companies and those controlled by local interests.  Foreign firms and individuals are able to incorporate their operations in Hong Kong, register branches of foreign operations, and set up representative offices without encountering discrimination or undue regulation.  There is no restriction on the ownership of such operations.  Company directors are not required to be citizens of, or resident in, Hong Kong.  Reporting requirements are straightforward and are not onerous.

Despite the imposition of the NSL by Beijing, significant curtailments in individual freedoms, and the end of Hong Kong’s ability to exercise the degree of autonomy it enjoyed in the past, Hong Kong remains a popular destination for U.S. investment and trade.  Even with a population of less than eight million, Hong Kong is the United States’ twelfth-largest export market, thirteenth largest for total agricultural products, and sixth-largest for high-value consumer food and beverage products.  Hong Kong’s economy, with world-class institutions and regulatory systems, is bolstered by its competitive financial and professional services, trading, logistics, and tourism sectors, although tourism suffered steep drops in 2020 due to COVID-19.  The service sector accounted for more than 90 percent of Hong Kong’s nearly USD 348 billion gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020.  Hong Kong hosts a large number of regional headquarters and regional offices.  Approximately 1,300 U.S. companies are based in Hong Kong, according to Hong Kong’s 2020 census data, with more than half regional in scope.  Finance and related services companies, such as banks, law firms, and accountancies, dominate the pack.  Seventy of the world’s 100 largest banks have operations in Hong Kong.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 11 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 3 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2020 11 of 131 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2019 USD 81,883 https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 USD 50,800 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

Hong Kong is the world’s second-largest recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI), according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) World Investment Report 2020, with a significant amount bound for mainland China.  The HKG’s InvestHK encourages inward investment, offering free advice and services to support companies from the planning stage through to the launch and expansion of their business.  U.S. and other foreign firms can participate in government financed and subsidized research and development programs on a national treatment basis.  Hong Kong does not discriminate against foreign investors by prohibiting, limiting, or conditioning foreign investment in a sector of the economy.

Capital gains are not taxed, nor are there withholding taxes on dividends and royalties.  Profits can be freely converted and remitted.  Foreign-owned and Hong Kong-owned company profits are taxed at the same rate – 16.5 percent.  The tax rate on the first USD 255,000 profit for all companies is currently 8.25 percent.  No preferential or discriminatory export and import policies affect foreign investors.  Domestic industries receive no direct subsidies.  Foreign investments face no disincentives, such as quotas, bonds, deposits, or other similar regulations.

According to HKG statistics, 3,983 overseas companies had regional operations registered in Hong Kong in 2020.  The United States has the largest number with 690.  Hong Kong is working to attract more start-ups as it works to develop its technology sector, and about 26 percent of start-ups in Hong Kong come from overseas.

Hong Kong’s Business Facilitation Advisory Committee is a platform for the HKG to consult the private sector on regulatory proposals and implementation of new or proposed regulations.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Foreign investors can invest in any business and own up to 100 percent of equity.  Like domestic private entities, foreign investors have the right to engage in all forms of remunerative activity.

The HKG owns virtually all land in Hong Kong, which the HKG administers by granting long-term leases without transferring title.  Foreign residents claim that a 15 percent Buyer’s Stamp Duty on all non-permanent-resident and corporate buyers discriminates against them.

The main exceptions to the HKG’s open foreign investment policy are:

Broadcasting – Voting control of free-to-air television stations by non-residents is limited to 49 percent.  There are also residency requirements for the directors of broadcasting companies.

Legal Services – Foreign lawyers at foreign law firms may only practice the law of their jurisdiction.  Foreign law firms may become “local” firms after satisfying certain residency and other requirements.  Localized firms may thereafter hire local attorneys but must do so on a 1:1 basis with foreign lawyers.  Foreign law firms can also form associations with local law firms.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

Hong Kong last conducted the Trade Policy Review in 2018 through the World Trade Organization (WTO).  https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/g380_e.pdf

Business Facilitation

The Efficiency Office under the Innovation and Technology Bureau is responsible for business facilitation initiatives aimed at improving the business regulatory environment of Hong Kong.

The e-Registry (https://www.eregistry.gov.hk/icris-ext/apps/por01a/index) is a convenient and integrated online platform provided by the Companies Registry and the Inland Revenue Department for applying for company incorporation and business registration.  Applicants, for incorporation of local companies or for registration of non-Hong Kong companies, must first register for a free user account, presenting an original identification document or a certified true copy of the identification document.  The Companies Registry normally issues the Business Registration Certificate and the Certificate of Incorporation on the same day for applications for company incorporation.  For applications for registration of a non-Hong Kong company, it issues the Business Registration Certificate and the Certificate of Registration two weeks after submission.

Outward Investment

As a free market economy, Hong Kong does not promote or incentivize outward investment, nor restrict domestic investors from investing abroad.  Mainland China and British Virgin Islands were the top two destinations for Hong Kong’s outward investments in 2019 (based on most recent data available).

2. Bilateral Investment Agreements and Taxation Treaties

Hong Kong has bilateral investment agreements with Australia, Austria, the Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Kuwait, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  It has concluded but not yet signed agreements with Bahrain, Myanmar, and Maldives.  Hong Kong has also signed an investment agreement with Mexico, but it is not yet in force.  The HKG is currently negotiating agreements with Iran, Turkey, and Russia.  All such agreements are based on a model text approved by mainland China through the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group.  U.S. firms are generally not at a competitive or legal disadvantage.

Hong Kong has a free trade agreement (FTA) with mainland China, the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA), which provides tariff-free export to mainland China of Hong Kong-origin goods and preferential access for specific services.  CEPA has gradually expanded since its signing in 2003.  Under the CEPA framework, Hong Kong enjoys liberalized trade in services using a “negative list” covering 134 service sectors for Hong Kong and grants national treatment to Hong Kong’s 62 service industries.  Hong Kong also enjoys most-favored nation treatment, with liberalization measures included in FTAs signed by mainland China and other countries automatically extended to Hong Kong.  Hong Kong and mainland China have also signed an investment agreement and an economic and technical cooperation agreement.  The investment agreement includes provision of national treatment and non-services investment using a negative list approach.

Hong Kong also has FTAs with New Zealand, member states of the European Free Trade Association, Chile, Macau, ASEAN, Georgia, the Maldives, and Australia.  These agreements are consistent with the provisions of the WTO.  Hong Kong is exploring FTAs with the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) and the United Kingdom.  Hong Kong is keenly interested in joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

The United States does not have a bilateral treaty on the avoidance of double taxation with Hong Kong, but has a Tax Information Exchange Agreement and an Inter-Government Agreement on the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act with Hong Kong.  As of April 2020, the HKG had Comprehensive Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreements (CDTAs) with 43 tax jurisdictions, and negotiations with 14 tax jurisdictions are underway.  The HKG targets to bring the total number of CDTAs to 50 by the end of 2022.  In September 2018, the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters signed by mainland China entered into force for Hong Kong.  Effective January 2021, the number of reportable jurisdictions increased from 75 to 126.

Under the President’s Executive Order on Hong Kong Normalization, which directs the suspension or elimination of special and preferential treatment for Hong Kong, the United States notified the Hong Kong authorities in August 2020 of its suspension of the Reciprocal Tax Exemptions on Income Derived from the International Operation of Ships Agreement.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

Hong Kong’s regulations and policies typically strive to avoid distortions or impediments to the efficient mobilization and allocation of capital and to encourage competition.  Bureaucratic procedures and “red tape” are usually transparent and held to a minimum.

In amending or making any legislation, including investment laws, the HKG conducts a three-month public consultation on the issue concerned which then informs the drafting of the bill.  Lawmakers then discuss draft bills and vote.  Hong Kong’s legal, regulatory, and accounting systems are transparent and consistent with international norms.

Gazette is the official publication of the HKG.  This website https://www.gld.gov.hk/egazette/english/whatsnew/whatsnew.html is the centralized online location where laws, regulations, draft bills, notices, and tenders are published.  All public comments received by the HKG are published at the websites of relevant policy bureaus.

The Office of the Ombudsman, established in 1989 by the Ombudsman Ordinance, is Hong Kong’s independent watchdog of public governance.

Public finances are regulated by clear laws and regulations.  The Basic Law prescribes that authorities strive to achieve a fiscal balance and avoid deficits.  There is a clear commitment by the HKG to publish fiscal information under the Audit Ordinance and the Public Finance Ordinance, which prescribe deadlines for the publication of annual accounts and require the submission of annual spending estimates to the Legislative Council (LegCo).  There are few contingent liabilities of the HKG, with details of these items published about seven months after the release of the fiscal budget.  In addition, LegCo members have a responsibility to enhance budgetary transparency by urging government officials to explain the government’s rationale for the allocation of resources.  All LegCo meetings are open to the public so that the government’s responses are available to the general public.

On March 29, 2021, the Hong Kong Financial Services and Treasury Bureau submitted to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council plans to restrict the public from accessing certain information about executives in the Company Registry.  If passed, companies will be allowed immediately to withhold information on the residential addresses and identification numbers of directors and secretaries.  Corporate governance and financial experts warned that the proposal could enable fraud and further hurt the city’s status as a transparent financial hub.   Media organizations criticized the plan for undermining transparency and freedom of information.

International Regulatory Considerations

Hong Kong is an independent member of the WTO and Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC), adopting international norms.  It notifies all draft technical regulations to the WTO Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade and was the first WTO member to ratify the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA).  Hong Kong has achieved a 100 percent rate of implementation commitments.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Hong Kong’s common law system is based on the United Kingdom’s, and judges are appointed by the Chief Executive on the recommendation of the Judicial Officers Recommendation Commission.  Regulations or enforcement actions are appealable, and they are adjudicated in the court system.

Hong Kong’s commercial law covers a wide range of issues related to doing business.  Most of Hong Kong’s contract law is found in the reported decisions of the courts in Hong Kong and other common law jurisdictions.

The imposition of the NSL and pressure from the PRC authorities raised serious concerns about the longevity of Hong Kong’s judicial independence.  The NSL authorizes the mainland China judicial system, which lacks judicial independence and has a 99 percent conviction rate, to take over any national security-related case at the request of the Hong Kong government or the Office of Safeguarding National Security.  Under the NSL, the Hong Kong Chief Executive is required to establish a list of judges to handle all cases concerning national security-related offenses.  Although Hong Kong’s judiciary selects the specific judge(s) who will hear any individual case, some commentators argued that this unprecedented involvement of the Chief Executive weakens Hong Kong’s judicial independence.

Media outlets controlled by the PRC central government in both Hong Kong and mainland China repeatedly accused Hong Kong judges of bias following the acquittals of protesters accused of rioting and other crimes.  Some Hong Kong and PRC central government officials questioned the existence of the “separation of powers” in Hong Kong, including some statements that judicial independence is not enshrined in Hong Kong law and that judges should follow “guidance” from the government.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

Hong Kong’s extensive body of commercial and company law generally follows that of the United Kingdom, including the common law and rules of equity.  Most statutory law is made locally.  The local court system, which is independent of the government, provides for effective enforcement of contracts, dispute settlement, and protection of rights.  Foreign and domestic companies register under the same rules and are subject to the same set of business regulations.

The Hong Kong Code on Takeovers and Mergers (1981) sets out general principles for acceptable standards of commercial behavior.

The Companies Ordinance (Chapter 622) applies to Hong Kong-incorporated companies and contains the statutory provisions governing compulsory acquisitions.  For companies incorporated in jurisdictions other than Hong Kong, relevant local company laws apply.  The Companies Ordinance requires companies to retain accurate and up to date information about significant controllers.

The Securities and Futures Ordinance (Chapter 571) contains provisions requiring shareholders to disclose interests in securities in listed companies and provides listed companies with the power to investigate ownership of interests in its shares.  It regulates the disclosure of inside information by listed companies and restricts insider dealing and other market misconduct.

Competition and Antitrust Laws

The independent Competition Commission (CC) investigates anti-competitive conduct that prevents, restricts, or distorts competition in Hong Kong.  In December 2020, the CC filed Hong Kong’s first abuse of substantial market power case in the Competition Tribunal against Linde HKO and its Germany-based parent company Linde GmbH for leveraging substantial market power in the production and supply of medical oxygen, medical nitrous oxide, Entonox, and medical air to maintain a stranglehold over the downstream maintenance market.

Expropriation and Compensation

The U.S. Consulate General is not aware of any expropriations in the recent past.  Expropriation of private property in Hong Kong may occur if it is clearly in the public interest and only for well-defined purposes such as implementation of public works projects.  Expropriations are to be conducted through negotiations, and in a non-discriminatory manner in accordance with established principles of international law.  Investors in and lenders to expropriated entities are to receive prompt, adequate, and effective compensation.  If agreement cannot be reached on the amount payable, either party can refer the claim to the Land Tribunal.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

The Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States (ICSID Convention) and the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention) apply to Hong Kong.  Hong Kong’s Arbitration Ordinance provides for enforcement of awards under the 1958 New York Convention.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

The U.S. Consulate General is not aware of any investor-state disputes in recent years involving U.S. or other foreign investors or contractors and the HKG.  Private investment disputes are normally handled in the courts or via private mediation.  Alternatively, disputes may be referred to the Hong Kong International Arbitration Center.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

The HKG accepts international arbitration of investment disputes between itself and investors and has adopted the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law model law for domestic and international commercial arbitration.  It has a Memorandum of Understanding with mainland China modelled on the 1958 Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention) for reciprocal enforcement of arbitral awards.

Under Hong Kong’s Arbitration Ordinance emergency relief granted by an emergency arbitrator before the establishment of an arbitral tribunal, whether inside or outside Hong Kong, is enforceable.  The Arbitration Ordinance stipulates that all disputes over intellectual property rights may be resolved by arbitration.

The Mediation Ordinance details the rights and obligations of participants in mediation, especially related to confidentiality and admissibility of mediation communications in evidence.

Third party funding for arbitration and mediation came into force on February 1, 2019.

Foreign judgments in civil and commercial matters may be enforced in Hong Kong by common law or under the Foreign Judgments (Reciprocal Enforcement) Ordinance, which facilitates reciprocal recognition and enforcement of judgments based on reciprocity.  A judgment originating from a jurisdiction that does not recognize a Hong Kong judgment may still be recognized and enforced by the Hong Kong courts, provided that all the relevant requirements of common law are met.  However, a judgment will not be enforced in Hong Kong if it can be shown that either the judgment or its enforcement is contrary to Hong Kong’s public policy.

In January 2019, Hong Kong and mainland China signed a new Arrangement on Reciprocal Recognition and Enforcement of Judgments in Civil and Commercial Matters by the Courts of the mainland and of Hong Kong to facilitate enforcement of judgments in the two jurisdictions.  The arrangement, which as of February 2021 is still pending implementing legislation, will cover the following key features: contractual and tortious disputes in general; commercial contracts, joint venture disputes, and outsourcing contracts; intellectual property rights, matrimonial or family matters; and judgments related to civil damages awarded in criminal cases.

Bankruptcy Regulations

Hong Kong’s Bankruptcy Ordinance provides the legal framework to enable i) a creditor to file a bankruptcy petition with the court against an individual, firm, or partner of a firm who owes him/her money; and ii) a debtor who is unable to repay his/her debts to file a bankruptcy petition against himself/herself with the court.  Bankruptcy offenses are subject to criminal liability.

The Companies (Winding Up and Miscellaneous Provisions) Ordinance aims to improve and modernize the corporate winding-up regime by increasing creditor protection and further enhancing the integrity of the winding-up process.

The Commercial Credit Reference Agency collates information about the indebtedness and credit history of SMEs and makes such information available to members of the Hong Kong Association of Banks and the Hong Kong Association of Deposit Taking Companies.

Hong Kong’s average duration of bankruptcy proceedings is just under ten months, ranking 45th in the world for resolving insolvency, according to the World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 rankings.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

Hong Kong imposes no export performance or local content requirements as a condition for establishing, maintaining, or expanding a foreign investment.  There are no requirements that Hong Kong residents own shares, that foreign equity is reduced over time, or that technology is transferred on certain terms.  The HKG does not have a practice of issuing guarantees or jointly financing foreign direct investment projects.

The HKG allows a deduction on interest paid to overseas-associated corporations and provides an 8.25 percent concessionary tax rate derived by a qualifying corporate treasury center.

The HKG offers an effective tax rate of around three to four percent to attract aircraft leasing companies to develop business in Hong Kong.

The HKG has set up multiple programs to assist enterprises in securing trade finance and business capital, expanding markets, and enhancing overall competitiveness.  These support measures are available to any enterprise in Hong Kong, irrespective of origin.

Hong Kong-registered companies with a significant proportion of their research, design, development, production, management, or general business activities located in Hong Kong are eligible to apply to the Innovation and Technology Fund (ITF), which provides financial support for research and development (R&D) activities in Hong Kong.  Hong Kong Science & Technology Parks (Science Park) and Cyberport are HKG-owned enterprises providing subsidized rent and financial support through incubation programs to early-stage startups.

The HKG offers additional tax deductions for domestic expenditure on R&D incurred by firms.  Firms enjoy a 300 percent tax deduction for the first HKD 2 million (USD 255,000) qualifying R&D expenditure and a 200 percent deduction for the remainder.  Since 2017, the Financial Secretary has announced over HKD 120 billion (USD 15.3 billion) in funding to support innovation and technology development in Hong Kong.  These funds are largely directed at supporting and adding programs through the ITF, Science Park, and Cyberport.

In February 2009, HKD 20 billion (USD 2.6 billion) was  earmarked for the Research Endowment Fund, which provides research grants to academics and universities.  In February 2018, another HKD 10 billion (USD 1.3 billion) was set aside to provide financial incentives to foreign universities to partner with Hong Kong universities and establish joint research projects housed in two research clusters in Science Park, one specializing in artificial intelligence and robotics and the other specializing in biotechnology.  In February 2018, another HKD 20 billion (USD 2.6 billion) was appropriated to begin construction on a second, larger Science Park, located on the border with Shenzhen, which is intended to provide a much larger number of subsidized-rent facilities for R&D which are also expected to have special rules allowing mainland residents to work onsite without satisfying normal immigration procedures.

The Technology Talent Admission Scheme provides a fast-track arrangement for eligible technology companies/institutes to admit overseas and mainland technology talent to undertake R&D for them in the areas of biotechnology, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, robotics, data analytics, financial technologies, and material science are eligible for application.  The Postdoctoral Hub Program provides funding support to recipients of the ITF, as well as incubatees and tenants of Science Park and Cyberport, to recruit up to two postdoctoral talents for R&D. Applicants must have a doctoral degree in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics-related discipline from either a local university or a well-recognized non-local institution.

In July 2020, the HKG launched a USD 256.4 million Re-industrialization Funding Scheme to subsidize manufacturers, on a matching basis, setting up smart production lines in Hong Kong.

The Pilot Bond Grant Scheme launched by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) in May 2018 is aimed at improving Hong Kong’s competitiveness in the international bond market by enhanced tax concessions for qualifying debt instruments.  The HKG supports first-time issues with a grant of up to 50 percent of the eligible issuance expenses, with a cap of HKD 2.5 million (USD 320,500) for issues with a credit rating from a credit rating agency recognized by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA), or a cap of HKD 1.25 million (USD 160,200) for issues that do not have a credit rating and where neither the issuer nor the issue’s guarantor have a credit rating.

In October 2020, the HKG launched a USD 38 million pilot subsidy scheme to encourage the logistics industry to enhance productivity through the application of technology.

Starting from December 2020, a USD 25.6 million Green Tech Fund (GTF) is open for applications.  The GTF provides funding supports to R&D projects which can help Hong Kong decarbonize and enhance environmental protection.  The amount of funding for each project ranges from USD 320,500 to USD 3.9 million, and each project may last up to five years.

In February 2021, the HKG announced a proposal to strengthen Hong Kong’s position as an asset management center.  The HKG planned to introduce in the second quarter of 2021 new legislation to facilitate the re-domicile of foreign investment funds to Hong Kong for registration as Open-ended Fund Companies (OFCs).  The HKG would provide subsidies to cover 70 percent of the expenses (capped at HKD 1 million or USD 125,000) paid to local professional service providers for OFCs set up in or re-domiciled to Hong Kong in the coming three years.

In February 2021, the HKG announced it would consolidate the Pilot Bond Grant Scheme and the Green Bond Grant Scheme into a Green and Sustainable Finance Grant Scheme to subsidize eligible bond issuers and loan borrowers to cover their expenses on bond issuance and external review services.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

Hong Kong, a free port without foreign trade zones, has modern and efficient infrastructure making it a regional trade, finance, and services center.  Rapid growth has placed severe demands on that infrastructure, necessitating plans for major new investments in transportation and shipping facilities, including a planned expansion of container terminal facilities, additional roadway and railway networks, major residential/commercial developments, community facilities, and environmental protection projects.  Construction on a third runway at Hong Kong International Airport is scheduled for completion by 2023.

Hong Kong and mainland China have a Free Trade Agreement Transshipment Facilitation Scheme that enables mainland-bound consignments passing through Hong Kong to enjoy tariff reductions in the mainland.  The arrangement covers goods traded between mainland China and its trading partners, including ASEAN members, Australia, Bangladesh, Chile, Costa Rica, Iceland, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, Peru, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, and Taiwan.

The HKG launched in December 2018 phase one of the Trade Single Window (TSW) to provide a one-stop electronic platform for submitting ten types of trade documents, promoting cross-border customs cooperation, and expediting trade declaration and customs clearance.  Phase two is expected to be implemented in 2023.

The latest version of CEPA has established principles of trade facilitation, including simplifying customs procedures, enhancing transparency, and strengthening cooperation.

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

The HKG does not mandate local employment or performance requirements.  It does not follow a forced localization policy making foreign investors use domestic content in goods or technology.

Foreign nationals normally need a visa to live or work in Hong Kong.  Short-term visitors are permitted to conduct business negotiations and sign contracts while on a visitor’s visa or entry permit.  Companies employing people from overseas must show that a prospective employee has special skills, knowledge, or experience not readily available in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong allows free and uncensored flow of information, though the imposition of the NSL created certain limits on freedom of expression and content, especially those that may be viewed as politically-sensitive such as advocating for Hong Kong’s independence from mainland China.  The freedom and privacy of communication is enshrined in Basic Law Article 30.  The HKG has no requirements for foreign IT providers to turn over source code and does not interfere with data center operations.  However, the NSL introduced a heightened risk of PRC and Hong Kong authorities using expanded legal authorities to collect data from businesses and individuals in Hong Kong for actions that may violate “national security.” For more information, please refer to the Hong Kong business advisory released jointly by the Department of State, along with the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Homeland Security on July 16, 2021.

The NSL grants Hong Kong police broad authorities to conduct wiretaps or electronic surveillance without warrants in national security-related cases.  The NSL also empowers police to conduct searches, including of electronic devices, for evidence in national security cases.  Police can also require Internet service providers to provide or delete information relevant to these cases.  In January 2021, the organizer of an online platform alleged that local Internet providers have made the site inaccessible for users in Hong Kong following requests from the Hong Kong government.  One ISP subsequently confirmed that they it blocked a website “in compliance with the requirement issued under the National Security Law.”

Hong Kong does not currently restrict transfer of personal data outside the SAR, but the dormant Section 33 the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance would prohibit such transfers unless the personal data owner consents or other specified conditions are met.  The Privacy Commissioner is authorized to bring Section 33 into effect at any time, but it has been dormant since 1995.

In January 2020, the HKG introduced a discussion paper to the LegCo and proposed certain changes to the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance with the aim of strengthening data protection in Hong Kong.  One of the amendments proposed was to require data users to formulate a clear data retention policy which specified a retention period for the personal data collected.  Feedback from the LegCo on this discussion paper formed the basis of further consultations with stakeholders and more concrete legislative amendment proposals.  There is no indication on the timeline of any legislative amendments to the Ordinance.

In December 2020, Hong Kong’s Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) required licensed corporations in Hong Kong to seek the SFC’s approval before using the following for storing regulatory records: 1) premises controlled exclusively by an external data storage provider(s) located inside or outside Hong Kong, such as cloud service providers like Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure or Amazon AWS; or 2) server(s) for data storage at data centers located inside or outside Hong Kong.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

The Basic Law ensures protection of leaseholders’ rights in long-term leases that are the basis of the SAR’s real property system.  The Basic Law also protects the lawful traditional rights and interests of the indigenous inhabitants of the New Territories.  The real estate sector, one of Hong Kong’s pillar industries, is equipped with a sound banking mortgage system.  HK ranked 51st for ease of registering property, according to the World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 rankings.

Land transactions in Hong Kong operate on a deeds registration system governed by the Land Registration Ordinance.  The Land Titles Ordinance provides greater certainty on land title and simplifies the conveyancing process.

Intellectual Property Rights

Hong Kong generally provides strong intellectual property rights (IPR) protection and enforcement and for the most part has instituted an IP regime consistent with international standards.  Hong Kong has effective IPR enforcement capacity, and a judicial system that supports enforcement efforts with an effective public outreach program that discourages IPR-infringing activities.   Despite the robustness of Hong Kong’s IP system, challenges remain, particularly in copyright infringement and effective enforcement against the heavy, bi-directional flow of counterfeit goods.

Hong Kong’s commercial and company laws provide for effective enforcement of contracts and protection of corporate rights.  Hong Kong has filed its notice of compliance with the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) requirements of the WTO.  The Intellectual Property Department, which includes the Trademarks and Patents Registries, is the focal point for the development of Hong Kong’s IP regime.  The Customs and Excise Department (CED) is the sole enforcement agency for intellectual property rights (IPR).  Hong Kong has acceded to the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property, the Bern Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, and the Geneva and Paris Universal Copyright Conventions.  Hong Kong also continues to participate in the World Intellectual Property Organization as part of mainland China’s delegation; the HKG has seconded an officer from CED to INTERPOL in Lyon, France to further collaborate on IPR enforcement.

The HKG devotes significant resources to IPR enforcement.  Hong Kong courts have imposed longer jail terms than in the past for violations of Hong Kong’s Copyright Ordinance.  CED works closely with foreign customs agencies and the World Customs Organization to share best practices and to identify, disrupt, and dismantle criminal organizations engaging in IP theft that operate in multiple countries.  The government has conducted public education efforts to encourage respect for IPR.  Pirated and counterfeit products remain available on a small scale at the retail level throughout Hong Kong.

Other IPR challenges include end-use piracy of software and textbooks, internet peer-to-peer downloading, and the illicit importation and transshipment of pirated and counterfeit goods from mainland China and other places in Asia.  Hong Kong authorities have taken steps to address these challenges by strengthening collaboration with mainland Chinese authorities, prosecuting end-use software piracy, and monitoring suspect shipments at points of entry.  It has also established a task force to monitor and crack down on internet-based peer-to-peer piracy.

The Drug Office of Hong Kong imposes a drug registration requirement that requires applicants for new drug registrations to make a non-infringement patent declaration.  The Copyright Ordinance protects any original copyrighted work created or published anywhere in the world and criminalizes copying and distribution of protected works .  The Ordinance also provides rental rights for sound recordings, computer programs, films, and comic books and includes enhanced penalty provisions and other legal tools to facilitate enforcement.  The law defines possession of an infringing copy of computer programs, movies, TV dramas, and musical recordings (including visual and sound recordings) for use in business as an offense but provides no criminal liability for other categories of works.  In June 2020, an amendment bill to implement the Marrakesh Treaty came into effect.

The HKG has consulted unsuccessfully with internet service providers and content user representatives on a voluntary framework for IPR protection in the digital environment.  It has also failed to pass amendments to the Copyright Ordinance that would enhance copyright protection against online piracy.  As of February 2021, the Infringing Website List Scheme (IWLS) established by the Hong Kong Creative Industries Association to clamp down on websites that display pirated content reportedly included 137 infringing websites in the portal.  In addition, 27 HKG agencies have been assigned with an individual password for checking with the IWLS before placing digital advertisements and tenders.

The Patent Ordinance allows for granting an independent patent in Hong Kong based on patents granted by the United Kingdom and mainland China.  Patents granted in Hong Kong are independent and capable of being tested for validity, rectified, amended, revoked, and enforced in Hong Kong courts.  Hong Kong’s Original Grant Patent system, which came into operation in December 2019, takes into account the patent systems generally established in regional and international patent treaties, while maintaining the re-registration system for the granting of standard patents.

The Registered Design Ordinance is modeled on the EU design registration system.  To be registered, a design must be new, and the system requires no substantive examination.  The initial period of five years protection is extendable for four periods of five years each, up to 25 years.

Hong Kong’s trademark law is TRIPS-compatible and allows for registration of trademarks relating to services.  All trademark registrations originally filed in Hong Kong are valid for seven years and renewable for 14-year periods.  Proprietors of trademarks registered elsewhere must apply anew and satisfy all requirements of Hong Kong law.  When evidence of use is required, such use must have occurred in Hong Kong.  In June 2020, Hong Kong implemented the Madrid Protocol.  The HKG will liaise with mainland China to seek application of the Madrid Protocol to Hong Kong beginning in 2022.

Hong Kong has no specific ordinance to cover trade secrets; however, the government has a duty under the Trade Descriptions Ordinance to protect information from being disclosed to other parties.  The Trade Descriptions Ordinance prohibits false trade descriptions, forged trademarks, and misstatements regarding goods and services supplied during trade.

For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/.

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

There are no impediments to the free flow of financial resources.  Non-interventionist economic policies, complete freedom of capital movement, and a well-understood regulatory and legal environment make Hong Kong a regional and international financial center.  It has one of the most active foreign exchange markets in Asia.

Assets and wealth managed in Hong Kong posted a record high of USD 3.7 trillion in 2019 (the latest figure available), with two-thirds of that coming from overseas investors.  To enhance the competitiveness of Hong Kong’s fund industry, OFCs as well as onshore and offshore funds are offered a profits tax exemption.

The HKMA’s Infrastructure Financing Facilitation Office (IFFO) provides a platform for pooling the efforts of investors, banks, and the financial sector to offer comprehensive financial services for infrastructure projects in emerging markets.  IFFO is an advisory partner of the World Bank Group’s Global Infrastructure Facility.

Under the Insurance Companies Ordinance, insurance companies are authorized by the Insurance Authority to transact business in Hong Kong.  As of February 2021, there were 165 authorized insurance companies in Hong Kong, 70 of them foreign or mainland Chinese companies.

The Hong Kong Stock Exchange’s total market capitalization surged by 24.0 percent to USD 6.1 trillion in 2020, with 2,538 listed firms at year-end.  Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited, a listed company, operates the stock and futures exchanges.  The Securities and Futures Commission (SFC), an independent statutory body outside the civil service, has licensing and supervisory powers to ensure the integrity of markets and protection of investors.

No discriminatory legal constraints exist for foreign securities firms establishing operations in Hong Kong via branching, acquisition, or subsidiaries.  Rules governing operations are the same for all firms.  No laws or regulations specifically authorize private firms to adopt articles of incorporation or association that limit or prohibit foreign investment, participation, or control.

In 2020, a total of 291 Chinese enterprises had “H” share listings on the stock exchange, with combined market capitalization of USD 906 billion.  The Shanghai-Hong Kong and Shenzhen-Hong Kong Stock Connects allow individual investors to cross trade Hong Kong and mainland stocks.  In December 2018, the ETF Connect, which was planned to allow international and mainland investors to trade in exchange-traded fund products listed in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, was put on hold indefinitely due to “technical issues.” However, China approved two cross-listings of ETFs between Shanghai Stock exchange and the Tokyo Stock Exchange in June 2019, and between Shenzhen Stock Exchange and Hong Kong Stock Exchange in October 2020.

By the end of 2020, 50 mainland mutual funds and 29 Hong Kong mutual funds were allowed to be distributed in each other’s markets through the mainland-Hong Kong Mutual Recognition of Funds scheme. Hong Kong also has mutual recognition of funds programs with Switzerland, Thailand, Ireland, France, the United Kingdom, and Luxembourg.

Hong Kong has developed its debt market with the Exchange Fund bills and notes program.  Hong Kong Dollar debt stood at USD 292 billion by the end of 2020.  As of November 2020, RMB 1,203.5 billion (USD 180.5 billion) of offshore RMB bonds were issued in Hong Kong.  Multinational enterprises, including McDonald’s and Caterpillar, have also issued debt.  The Bond Connect, a mutual market access scheme, allows investors from mainland China and overseas to trade in each other’s respective bond markets through a financial infrastructure linkage in Hong Kong.  In the first eight months of 2020, the Northbound trading of Bond Connect accounted for 52 percent of foreign investors’ total turnover in the China Interbank Bond Market.  In December 2020, the HKMA and the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) set up a working group to drive the initiative of Southbound trading, with the target of launching it within 2021.

In June 2020, the PBoC, the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, the China Securities Regulatory Commission, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, the HKMA and the Monetary Authority of Macau announced that they decided to implement a cross-boundary Wealth Management Connect pilot scheme in the Greater Bay Area (GBA), an initiative to economically integrate Hong Kong and Macau with nine cities in Guangdong Province.  Under the scheme, residents in the GBA can carry out cross-boundary investment in wealth management products distributed by banks in the GBA.  These authorities are still working on the implementation details for the scheme.

In December 2020, the SFC concluded its consultation on proposed customer due diligence requirements for OFCs.  The new requirements will enhance the anti-money laundering and counter-financing of terrorism measures with respect to OFCs and better align the requirements for different investment vehicles for funds in Hong Kong.  Upon the completion of the legislative process, the new requirements will come into effect after a six-month transition period.

In February 2021, the HKG announced it would issue green bonds regularly and expand the scale of the Government Green Bond Program to USD 22.5 billion within the next five years.

The HKG requires workers and employers to contribute to retirement funds under the Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) scheme.  Contributions are expected to channel roughly USD five billion annually into various investment vehicles.  By September of 2020, the net asset values of MPF funds amounted to USD 131 billion.

Money and Banking System

Hong Kong has a three-tier system of deposit-taking institutions: licensed banks (161), restricted license banks (17), and deposit-taking companies (12).  HSBC is Hong Kong’s largest banking group.  With its majority-owned subsidiary Hang Seng Bank, HSBC controls more than 50.9 percent of Hong Kong Dollar (HKD) deposits.  The Bank of China (Hong Kong) is the second-largest banking group, with 15.4 percent of HKD deposits throughout 200 branches.  In total, the five largest banks in Hong Kong had more than USD 2 trillion in total assets at the end of 2019.  Thirty-five U.S. “authorized financial institutions” operate in Hong Kong, and most banks in Hong Kong maintain U.S. correspondent relationships.  Full implementation of the Basel III capital, liquidity, and disclosure requirements completed in 2019.

Credit in Hong Kong is allocated on market terms and is available to foreign investors on a non-discriminatory basis.  The private sector has access to the full spectrum of credit instruments as provided by Hong Kong’s banking and financial system.  Legal, regulatory, and accounting systems are transparent and consistent with international norms.  The HKMA, the de facto central bank, is responsible for maintaining the stability of the banking system and managing the Exchange Fund that backs Hong Kong’s currency.  Real Time Gross Settlement helps minimize risks in the payment system and brings Hong Kong in line with international standards.

Banks in Hong Kong have in recent years strengthened anti-money laundering and counterterrorist financing controls, including the adoption of more stringent customer due diligence (CDD) process for existing and new customers.  The HKMA stressed that “CDD measures adopted by banks must be proportionate to the risk level and banks are not required to implement overly stringent CDD processes.”

In November 2020, the HKG launched a three-month public consultation on its proposed amendments to the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorist Financing Ordinance.  Among other proposed changes, the HKG suggested introducing a licensing regime for virtual asset services providers and a two-tier registration regime for precious assets dealers.  The HKG will analyze feedback from the public before introducing a draft bill to the LegCo.

The NSL granted police authority to freeze assets related to national security-related crimes.  In October 2020, the HKMA advised banks in Hong Kong to report any transactions suspected of violating the NSL, following the same procedures as for money laundering.  Hong Kong authorities reportedly asked financial institutions to freeze bank accounts of former lawmakers, civil society groups, and other political targets who appear to be under investigation for their pro-democracy activities.

The HKMA welcomes the establishment of virtual banks, which are subject to the same set of supervisory principles and requirements applicable to conventional banks.  The HKMA has granted eight virtual banking licenses by the end of January 2021.

The HKMA’s Fintech Facilitation Office (FFO) aims to promote Hong Kong as a fintech hub in Asia.  FFO has launched the faster payment system to enable bank customers to make cross-bank/e-wallet payments easily and created a blockchain-based trade finance platform to reduce errors and risks of fraud.  The HKMA has signed nine fintech co-operation agreements with the regulatory authorities of Brazil, Dubai, France, Poland, Singapore, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

Conversion and inward/outward transfers of funds are not restricted.  The HKD is a freely convertible currency linked via de facto currency board to the U.S. dollar.  The exchange rate is allowed to fluctuate in a narrow band between HKD 7.75 – HKD 7.85 = USD 1.

Remittance Policies

There are no recent changes to or plans to change investment remittance policies.  Hong Kong has no restrictions on the remittance of profits and dividends derived from investment, nor reporting requirements on cross-border remittances.  Foreign investors bring capital into Hong Kong and remit it through the open exchange market.

Hong Kong has anti-money laundering (AML) legislation allowing the tracing and confiscation of proceeds derived from drug-trafficking and organized crime.  Hong Kong has an anti-terrorism law that allows authorities to freeze funds and financial assets belonging to terrorists.  Travelers arriving in Hong Kong with currency or bearer negotiable instruments (CBNIs) exceeding HKD 120,000 (USD 15,385) must make a written declaration to the CED.  For a large quantity of CBNIs imported or exported in a cargo consignment, an advanced electronic declaration must be made to the CED.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

The Future Fund, Hong Kong’s wealth fund, was established in 2016 with an endowment of USD 28.2 billion.  The fund seeks higher returns through long-term investments and adopts a “passive” role as a portfolio investor.  About half of the Future Fund has been deployed in alternative assets, mainly global private equity and overseas real estate, over a three-year period.  The rest is placed with the Exchange Fund’s Investment Portfolio, which follows the Santiago Principles, for an initial ten-year period.  In February 2020, the HKG announced that it will deploy 10 percent of the Future Fund to establish a new portfolio, which is called the Hong Kong Growth Portfolio (HKGP), focusing on domestic investments to lift the city’s competitiveness in financial services, commerce, aviation, logistics and innovation.  Between December 2020 and January 2021, the HKMA conducted a market survey to better understand the profiles of private equity firms with interest to become a general partner for the HKGP.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

Hong Kong has several major HKG-owned enterprises classified as “statutory bodies.” Hong Kong is party to the Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) within the framework of WTO.  Annex 3 of the GPA lists as statutory bodies the Housing Authority, the Hospital Authority, the Airport Authority, the Mass Transit Railway Corporation Limited, and the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation, which procure in accordance with the agreement.

The HKG provides more than half the population with subsidized housing, along with most hospital and education services from childhood through the university level.  The government also owns major business enterprises, including the stock exchange, railway, and airport.

Conflicts occasionally arise between the government’s roles as owner and policymaker.  Industry observers have recommended that the government establish a separate entity to coordinate its ownership of government-held enterprises and initiate a transparent process of nomination to the boards of government-affiliated entities.  Other recommendations from the private sector include establishing a clear separation between industrial policy and the government’s ownership function and minimizing exemptions of government-affiliated enterprises from general laws.

The Competition Law exempts all but six of the statutory bodies from the law’s purview.  While the government’s private sector ownership interests do not materially impede competition in Hong Kong’s most important economic sectors, industry representatives have encouraged the government to adhere more closely to the Guidelines on Corporate Governance of State-owned Enterprises of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Privatization Program

All major utilities in Hong Kong, except water, are owned and operated by private enterprises, usually under an agreement framework by which the HKG regulates each utility’s management.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

The Hong Kong Stock Exchange adopts a higher standard of disclosure – ‘comply or explain’ – about its environmental key performance indicators for listed companies.  Results of a consultation process to review its environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting guidelines indicate strong support for enhancing the ESG reporting framework.  It has implemented proposals from the consultation process since July 2020.  Because Hong Kong is not a member of the OECD, OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises are not applicable to Hong Kong companies.  The HKG, however, commends enterprises for fulfilling their social responsibility.  Hong Kong is not a signatory of the Montreux Document on Private Military and Security Companies.  Under the Security Bureau, the Security and Guarding Services Industry Authority is responsible for formulating issuing criteria and conditions for security company licenses and security personnel permits and determining applications for security company licenses.

Additional Resources

Department of State

Department of Labor

9. Corruption

Mainland China ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption in January 2006, and it was extended to Hong Kong in February 2006.  The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) is responsible for combating corruption and has helped Hong Kong develop a track record for combating corruption.  U.S. firms have not identified corruption as an obstacle to FDI.  A bribe to a foreign official is a criminal act, as is the giving or accepting of bribes, for both private individuals and government employees.  Offenses are punishable by imprisonment and large fines.

The Hong Kong Ethics Development Center (HKEDC), established by the ICAC, promotes business and professional ethics to sustain a level-playing field in Hong Kong.  The International Good Practice Guidance – Defining and Developing an Effective Code of Conduct for Organizations of the Professional Accountants in Business Committee published by the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) and is in use with the permission of IFAC.

Resources to Report Corruption

Simon Peh, Commissioner
Independent Commission Against Corruption
303 Java Road, North Point, Hong Kong
+852-2826-3111
Email: com-office@icac.org.hk

10. Political and Security Environment

Beijing’s imposition of the National Security Law (NSL) on June 30, 2020 has introduced heightened uncertainties for companies operating in Hong Kong.  As a result, U.S. citizens traveling through or residing in Hong Kong may be subject to increased levels of surveillance, as well as arbitrary enforcement of laws and detention for purposes other than maintaining law and order.

As of March 2021, police have carried out at least 100 arrests of opposition politicians and activists under the NSL, including one U.S. citizen, in an effort to suppress all pro-democracy views and political activity in the city.  Police have also reportedly issued arrest warrants under the NSL for approximately thirty individuals residing abroad, including U.S. citizens.  Since June 2019, police have arrested over 10,000 people on various charges in connection with largely peaceful protests against government policies.

Please see the July 16, 2021 business advisory issued by the Department of State, along with the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Homeland Security.

The Department of State assesses that Hong Kong does not maintain a sufficient degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework to justify continued special treatment by the United States for bilateral agreements and programs per the Hong Kong Policy Act.  As a result of Hong Kong’s lack of autonomy from China, the Department of Commerce ended Hong Kong’s treatment as a separate trade entity from China, including the removal of many of Department of Commerce’s License Exceptions.  U.S. Customs and Borders Protection (CBP) requires goods produced in Hong Kong to be marked to show China, rather than Hong Kong, as their country of origin.  This requirement took effect November 9, 2020.  It does not affect country of origin determinations for purposes of assessing ordinary duties or temporary or additional duties.  Hong Kong has requested World Trade Organization dispute consultations to examine the issue.  As of March 2021, the Department of Treasury has sanctioned 35 former and current Hong Kong and mainland Chinese government officials and 44 Chinese-military companies identified by the Department of Defense.

The PRC government does not recognize dual nationality.  In January 2021, the Hong Kong government moved to enforce existing provisions of the Nationality Law of the People’s Republic of China in place since 1997, effectively ending its longstanding recognition of dual citizenship in Hong Kong.  The action ended consular access to two detained U.S. citizens as of March 2021 and potentially removed consular protection from about half of the estimated 85,000 U.S. citizens in Hong Kong.  U.S.-PRC, U.S.-Hong Kong and U.S. citizens of Chinese heritage may be subject to additional scrutiny and harassment, and the PRC government may prevent the U.S. Embassy or U.S. Consulate from providing consular services.

Hong Kong financial regulators have conducted outreach to stress the importance of robust anti-money laundering (AML) controls and highlight potential criminal sanctions implications for failure to fulfill legal obligations under local AML laws.  However, Hong Kong has a low number of prosecutions and convictions compared to the number of cases investigated.

Under the President’s Executive Order on Hong Kong Normalization, which directs the suspension or elimination of special and preferential treatment for Hong Kong, the United States notified the Hong Kong authorities in August 2020 of its suspension of the Surrender of Fugitive Offenders Agreement and the Transfer of Sentenced Persons Agreement.  The Reciprocal Tax Exemptions on Income Derived from the International Operation of Ships Agreement was also suspended.  In response, the Hong Kong government suspended the Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Hong Kong on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Affairs, which entered into force in 2000.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

Hong Kong’s unemployment rate stood at 6.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, with the unemployment rate of youth aged 15-19 rising to 17.6 percent.  In 2020, skilled personnel working as administrators, managers, professionals, and associate professionals accounted for 40.6 percent of the total working population.  At the end of 2019, there were about 399,320 foreign domestic helpers working in Hong Kong.  In 2020, about 8,842 foreign professionals came to work in the city, more than 10,089 fewer than the previous year.  The Employees Retraining Board provides skills re-training for local employees.  To address a shortage of highly skilled technical and financial professionals, the HKG seeks to attract qualified foreign and mainland Chinese workers.

The Employment Ordinance (EO) and the Employees’ Compensation Ordinance prohibit the termination of employment in certain circumstances: 1) Any pregnant employee who has at least four weeks’ service and who has served notice of her pregnancy; 2) Any employee who is on paid statutory sick leave and; 3) Any employee who gives evidence or information in connection with the enforcement of the EO or relating to any accident at work, cooperates in any investigation of his employer, is involved in trade union activity, or serves jury duty may not be dismissed because of those circumstances. Breach of these prohibitions is a criminal offense.

According to the EO, someone employed under a continuous contract for not less than 24 months is eligible for severance payment if: 1) dismissed by reason of redundancy; 2) under a fixed term employment contract that expires without being renewed due to redundancy; or 3) laid off.

Unemployment benefits are income- and asset-tested on an individual basis if living alone; if living with other family members, the total income and assets of all family members are taken into consideration for eligibility.  Recipients must be between the ages of 15-59, capable of work, and actively seeking full-time employment.

Parties in a labor dispute can consult the free and voluntary conciliation service offered by the Labor Department (LD).  A conciliation officer appointed by the LD will help parties reach a contractually binding settlement.  If there is no settlement, parties can start proceedings with the Labor Tribunal (LT), which can then be raised to the Court of First Instance and finally the Court of Appeal for leave to appeal.  The Court of Appeal can grant leave only if the case concerns a question of law of general public importance.

Local law provides for the rights of association and of workers to establish and join organizations of their own choosing.  The government does not discourage or impede the formation of unions.  As of 2019, Hong Kong’s 866 registered unions had 923,239 members, a participation rate of about 25.7 percent.  In 2020, 491 new worker unions formed to improve chances of winning seats in the legislature.  Hong Kong’s labor legislation is in line with international laws.  Hong Kong has implemented 41 conventions of the International Labor Organization in full and 18 others with modifications.  Workers who allege discrimination against unions have the right to a hearing by the Labor Relations Tribunal.  Legislation protects the right to strike.  Collective bargaining is not protected by Hong Kong law; there is no obligation to engage in it; and it is not widely used.  For more information on labor regulations in Hong Kong, please visit the following website: http://www.labour.gov.hk/eng/legislat/contentA.htm (Chapter 57 “Employment Ordinance”).

The LT has the power to make an order for reinstatement or re-engagement without securing the employer’s approval if it deems an employee has been unreasonably and unlawfully dismissed.  If the employer does not reinstate or re-engage the employee as required by the order, the employer must pay to the employee a sum amounting to three times the employee’s average monthly wages up to USD 9,300.  The employer commits an offense if he/she willfully and without reasonable excuse fails to pay the additional sum.

Starting from January 2019, male employees are entitled to five days’ paternity leave (increased from three days).

Starting from December 2020,  the statutory maternity leave increases to 14 weeks from ten weeks.

Effective May 1, 2019, the statutory minimum hourly wage rate increases from USD 4.4 to USD 4.8.

In February 2020, about 2,500 medical workers of the Hospital Authority took part in an industrial action, demanding the HKG close its border to mainland China to prevent the spread of  COVID-19.  They ended the strike a few days later without getting their demands realized.

12. U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Other Investment Insurance and Development Finance Programs

As a developed economy, there is little potential for the DFC to operate in Hong Kong.  However, there is scope for cooperation between companies based in Hong Kong with regional operations to work with the DFC.  Hong Kong is a member of the World Bank Group’s Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount  
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2020 $347,529 2019 $365,712 www.worldbank.org/en/country
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 $44,974 2019 $81,883 BEA data available at
https://apps.bea.gov/
international/factsheet/
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 $14,679 2019 $14,110 BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-
enterprises-comprehensive-data
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 2019 507.5% 2019 506.5% UNCTAD data available at
https://stats.unctad.org/
handbook/EconomicTrends/Fdi.html

* Source for Host Country Data: Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department 

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward 1,732,495 100% Total Outward 1,763,164 100%
British Virgin Islands 606,804 35% China, P.R.: Mainland 800,640 45%
China, P.R.: Mainland 475,641 27% British Virgin Islands 579,860 33%
Cayman Islands 152,048 9% Cayman Islands 70,492 4%
United Kingdom 139,120 8% Bermuda 55,091 3%
Bermuda 99,514 6% United Kingdom 53,858 3%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.
Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Portfolio Investment Assets
Top Five Partners (Millions, current US Dollars)
Total Equity Securities Total Debt Securities
All Countries 1,830,229 100% All Countries 1,167,955 100% All Countries 662,274 100%
Cayman Islands 635,236 35% Cayman Islands 608,914 52% United States 156,543 24%
China, P.R.: Mainland 352,531 19% China, P.R.: Mainland 206,829 18% China, P.R.: Mainland 145,702 22%
United States 204,360 11% Bermuda 109,838 9% Japan 51,682 8%
Bermuda 112,021 6% United Kingdom 60,483 5% Luxembourg 42,742 6%
United Kingdom 85,496 5% United States 47,817 4% Australia 37,143 6%

14. Contact for More Information

Eveline Tseng, Consul, Economic Affairs
U.S. Consulate General Hong Kong and Macau
26 Garden Road, Central

Laos

Executive Summary

Laos, officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), is a rapidly growing developing economy at the heart of Southeast Asia, bordered by Burma, Cambodia, China, Thailand, and Vietnam.  Laos’ economic growth over the last decade averaged just below eight percent, placing Laos amongst the fastest growing economies in the world.  Over the last 30 years, Laos has made slow but steady progress in implementing reforms and building the institutions necessary for a market economy, culminating in accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in February 2013.  The Lao government’s commitment to WTO accession and the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015 led to major reforms of economic policies and regulations aimed at improving the business and investment environment.  Nonetheless, within ASEAN Laos ranks only ahead of Burma in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business’ rankings.  The Lao government is increasingly tying its economic fortunes to the economic integration of ASEAN and export-led development and is seeking to move toward green growth and sustainable development.

According to the World Bank, Lao PDR’s economic growth rate dramatically declined from 4.7 percent in 2019 to –0.6 percent in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with a global economic slowdown.  Limited fiscal and foreign currency buffers pose challenges to

the abilities of the government to mitigate the pandemic’s impacts.  This results in an intensification of the country’s macroeconomic vulnerabilities.  When compared to other countries in the region, foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows to Laos have been stable and driven by construction of infrastructure and power projects.  In 2021, if the pandemic is brought under control with the effective implementation of fiscal support measures, the GDP growth is projected to rise to 4.9 percent.

The exploitation of natural resources and development of hydropower has driven the rapid economic growth over the last decade, with both sectors largely led by foreign investors.  However, the Lao government recognizes that growth opportunities in these industries are finite and employ few people, and has therefore recently began prioritizing and expanding the development of high-value agriculture, light manufacturing, and tourism, while continuing to develop energy resources and related electrical transmission capacity for export to neighboring countries.

The Lao government hopes to leverage its lengthy land borders with Burma, China, Thailand, and Vietnam to transform Laos from “land-locked” to “land-linked,” thereby further integrating the Lao economy with the larger economies of the countries along its borders.  The government hopes to increase exports of agriculture, manufactured goods, and electricity to its more industrialized neighbors, and sees significant growth opportunities resulting from the China-Laos Railway, which will connect Kunming in Yunnan Province with Vientiane, Laos.  The railway is expected to be completed and operational by late 2021.  Some businesses and international investors are beginning to use Laos as a low-cost export base to sell goods within the region and to the United States and Europe.  The emergence of light manufacturing has begun to help Laos integrate into regional supply chains, and improving infrastructure should facilitate this process, making Laos a legitimate locale for regional manufacturers seeking to diversify from existing production bases in Thailand, Vietnam, and China.  New Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Vientiane and Savannakhet have attracted major manufacturers from Europe, North America, and Japan.  Chinese and Thai interests have plans for significant new SEZ projects.

Economic progress and trade expansion in Laos remain hampered by a shortage of workers with technical skills, weak education and health care systems, and poor—although improving—transportation infrastructure.  Institutions, especially in the justice sector, remain highly underdeveloped and regulatory capacity is low. Despite recent efforts and some improvements, corruption is rampant and is a major obstacle for foreign investors.

Corruption, policy and regulatory ambiguity, and the uneven application of laws remain disincentives to further foreign investment in the country.  The Lao government, under the administration of Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith has made efforts to improve the business environment.  Its 8th five-year National Socio-Economic Development Plan (NSEDP) (2016 – 2020) directs the government to formulate “policies that would attract investments” and to “begin to implement public investment and investment promotion laws.”  The Prime Minister’s publicly-stated goal is to see Laos improve its World Bank Ease of Doing Business ranking (Laos is currently ranked #154), and in February 2018 and January 2020, he issued a Prime Minister Order laying out specific steps ministries were to take in order to improve the business environment.  These efforts are having some impact – for example, it now takes to less than 17 days to obtain a business license, whereas just a few years ago it took 174 days, as other nonessential steps were eliminated.  The current administration remains active in firing or disciplining corrupt officials, with the government and National Assembly in 2019 disciplining hundreds of officials for corruption-related offenses.  Despite these efforts, the Laos’ Ease of Doing Business ranking fell from 139 in 2016 to 154 in 2020.  Furthermore, the multiple ministries, laws, and regulations affecting foreign investment into Laos create confusion, and thus, require many potential investors to engage either local partners or law firms to navigate the confusing bureaucracy, or turn their efforts entirely toward other countries in the region.

In 2021, Laos’ national administration will change due to government restructuring.  The new development plan, the 9th NSEDP (2021-2025), will be published later this year with a focus on utilization of the country’s potential aiming to strive for LDC graduation in 2026 and become an upper-middle income country.  One of the government’s priorities is to diversify the economy and improve the investment climate encouraging both domestic and foreign investment to accelerate socio-economic growth.  Therefore, investment-related policies and other regulations can be expected from the new government.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 134 of 179 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 154 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2020 113 of 131 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2020 N/A https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita 2020 USD 2,570 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD
Global Competitiveness Report 2019 113 of 141 http://reports.weforum.org/global-competitiveness-report-2019/economy-profiles

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

The Lao government officially welcomes both domestic and foreign investment as it seeks to keep growth rates high and graduate from Least Developed Country status by 2026.  The pace of foreign investment has increased over the last several years.  According to Lao government statistics, mining and hydropower account for 95.7 percent of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), and agriculture accounted for only 2 percent of FDI in 2019.  China, Thailand, France, Vietnam, and Japan are the largest sources of foreign investment, with China accounting for a significant share of all FDI in Laos.  The government’s Investment Promotion Department encourages investment through its website www.investlaos.gov.la, and the government also attempts to improve the business environment by facilitating a constructive dialogue annually with the private sector and foreign business chambers through the Lao Business Forum, which is managed by the Lao National Chamber of Commerce and Industry LNCCI).

The 2009 Law on Investment Promotion was amended in November 2016, with 32 new articles introduced and 59 existing articles revised.  Notably, the new law, an English version of which can be found at www.investlaos.gov.la, clarifies investment incentives, transfers responsibility for SEZs from the Prime Minister’s office to the Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI), and removes strict registered capital requirements for opening a business, deferring instead to the relevant ministry.  Foreigners may invest in any sector or business except in cases where the government deems the investment to be detrimental to national security, health, or national traditions, or that have a negative impact on the natural environment.  Specifically, Article 12 (value-added tax and duty incentives) was improved in 2019 as the government wants to provide a mechanism to facilitate investment towards activities that enable production and export.  Nevertheless, even in cases where full foreign ownership is permitted, many foreign companies seek a local partner.  Companies involved in large FDI projects, especially in mining and hydropower, often either find it advantageous or are required to give the government partial ownership.

Foreign investors are typically required to go through several procedural steps prior to commencing operations.  Many foreign business owners and potential investors claim the process is overly complex and regulations are erratically applied, particularly to foreigner investors.  Investors also express confusion about the roles of different ministries, as multiple ministries become involved in the approval process.  In the case of general investment licenses (as opposed to concessionary licenses, which are issued by MPI, foreign investors are required to obtain multiple permits, including an annual business registration from the Ministry of Industry and Commerce (MOIC), a tax registration from the Ministry of Finance, a business logo registration from the Ministry of Public Security, permits from each line ministry related to the investment (i.e., MOIC for manufacturing, and Ministry of Energy and Mines for power sector development), appropriate permits from local authorities, and an import-export license, if applicable.  Obtaining the necessary permits can be challenging and time consuming, especially in areas outside the capital.

There are several possible vehicles for foreign investment.  Foreign partners in a joint venture must contribute at least 30 percent of the company’s registered capital.  Wholly foreign-owned companies may be entirely new or a branch of an existing foreign enterprise.  Equity in medium and large-sized SOEs can be obtained through a joint venture with the Lao government.

Reliable statistics are difficult to obtain, yet with the slowdown of the world economy, there is no question that foreign investment has begun to fluctuate in comparison to previous years.  According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), FDI inflows to Laos decreased 58 percent from USD 1.3 billion in 2018 to USD 557 million in 2019. Laos received around USD 1.07 billion in FDI from China in 2019.  Total FDI in Laos has increased from USD 5.7 billion in 2016 to USD 10 billion in 2019.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

As discussed above, despite the fact that foreigners may invest in most sectors or businesses (subject to previously noted exceptions), many foreign companies seek a local partner in order to navigate byzantine official and unofficial processes.  Companies involved in large FDI projects, especially in mining and hydropower, often either find it advantageous or are required to give the government partial ownership.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

The OECD released its most recent investment policy review of Laos on July 11, 2017.  More details can be found at http://www.oecd.org/daf/inv/investment-policy/oecd-investment-policy-reviews-lao-pdr-2017-9789264276055-en.htm

Business Facilitation

Laos does not have a central business registration website yet, but the Ministry of Industry and Commerce (MOIC) has improved its online enterprise registration site, http://www.erm.gov.la, to accelerate the registration process.  As discussed above, the average time to attain an Enterprise Registration Certificate for general business activities decreased from 174 to 17 days. Nonetheless, the timeline and process for controlled and concession activities (see  https://www.laotradeportal.gov.la/kcfinder/upload/files/Legal_1571216364.pdf for a list) could vary considerably, as it requires the engagement of different government agencies to issue an operating license.  As a result, many investors and even locals often hire consultancies or law firms to shepherd the labor-intensive registration process.

The Lao government has attempted to streamline business registration through the use of a one-stop shop model.  Registration for general business activities can be done at the Department of Enterprise Registration and Management offices, MOIC (see http://www.erm.gov.la for more details), while the service for activities requiring a government concession is through the MPI.  For investment in SEZs, one-stop registration is run through the MPI or in special one-stop service offices within the SEZs themselves (under the authority of the MPI).

To promote and facilitate domestic and foreign investment, the Prime Minister issued Order 02 and Order 03 in 2018 and 2019 respectively to reform the ease of doing business and improve services on investment and operational licenses. This includes the improvement of the One Stop Service system and conducting business implementation associated with transparency in a uniform and timely manner.  The government also encourages the participation of both domestic and foreign investors to develop infrastructure and public services delivery projects by issuing a public-private partnership (PPP) decree in 2020 aiming to boost economic growth.

So far, business owners give the one-stop shop concept mixed reviews.  Many acknowledge that it is an improvement, but describe it as an incomplete reform with several additional steps that must still be taken outside of the single stop. Businesses also complain that there are often different registration requirements at the central and provincial levels.

Outward Investment

The Lao government does not actively promote, incentivize, or restrict outward investment.

2. Bilateral Investment Agreements and Taxation Treaties

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Laos has bilateral investment agreements with Australia, Belarus, Cambodia (not in force), China, Cuba, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Republic of Korea, Kuwait, Malaysia (not in force), Mongolia, Myanmar, Netherlands, Pakistan, Russia Federation, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam.  On February 1, 2005, a Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA) entered into force between the United States and the Government of Laos that contains some investment provisions.  The original BTA is available on MOIC’s website: http://www.laoftpd.com/

Laos and the United States do not have a bilateral taxation treaty.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

Regulations in Laos can be vague and conflicting, a subject that the private sector raises regularly with the government, including through official fora such as the Lao Business Forum.  The 2013 Law on Making Legislation mandated that all laws be available online at the official gazette website, www.laoofficialgazette.gov.la.  Draft bills are also available for public comment through the official gazette website, although not all bills are posted for comment or in the official gazette, and the provinces seldom post their local legislation.  Though the situation continues to improve, the realities of doing business in Laos can fail to correspond with existing legislation and regulation.  Implementation and enforcement often do not strictly follow the letter of the law, and vague or contradictory clauses in laws and regulations provide for widely varying interpretations.  Regulations at the national and provincial levels can often diverge, overlap, or contradict one another.  Many local firms still complain about informal or gray competition from firms that offer lower costs by flaunting formal registration requirements and operating outside of government regulatory structures.

The nascent legal, regulatory, and accounting systems are not particularly conducive to a transparent, competitive business environment.  International accounting norms apply and major international firms are present in the market, though understanding and adherence to these norms is limited to a small section of the business community.  There are eleven companies listed on the Lao stock exchange.  Regulations dictate that companies listed on the exchange must be held to accounting standards, but the government’s capacity to enforce those standards is low.

The government now publicly releases the enacted budget, which includes the total amount of domestic and external debt obligations for the whole country.

International Regulatory Considerations

Laos is a member of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), and is seeking to implement all AEC-agreed standards domestically.  However, the local capacity to develop regulatory standards is weak, while enforcement of technical regulations is weaker still. On the positive side, the Lao government has been diligent at notifying draft technical regulations – such as its new law on standards – to the WTO committee on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT).

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Laos currently has a poorly developed legal sector.  The government adopted the Legal Sector Master Plan with an aim to become a rule of law state by 2020.  The plan is now completed, and significant accomplishments include strengthening the rule of law and advancement in the exercise of rights.  Nevertheless, the rule of law in Laos is still in its infancy.  To improve the legal system, the government will continue to work with many development partners on comprehensive legal sector reform.  From 1975 to 1991, Laos did not have a constitution, and government decrees issued by various ministries and officials only exacerbated the country’s poor legal framework.  While there have been dramatic improvements in the legal system over the last decade, there are relatively few lawyers, many judges lack formal training and experience, and laws often remain vague and subject to broad interpretation.

The existing system incorporates some major elements of the French civil law system, but it is also influenced by legal systems of the former Soviet Union and some of its neighbors in the region.  Court decisions are neither widely published nor do they necessarily affect future decisions.  Despite being bureaucratically independent of the government cabinet, the Lao judiciary is still subject to government and political interference.

Contract law in Laos is lacking in many areas important to trade and commerce.  The law provides for the sanctity of contracts, but in practice, contracts are subject to political interference and patronage.  Businesses report that contracts can be voided if they are found to be disadvantageous to one party, or if they conflict with state or public interests.  Foreign businessmen describe contracts in Laos as being “a framework for negotiation” rather than a binding agreement, and even when faced with a judgment, enforcement is weak and subject to the influence of corruption.  Although a commercial court system exists, most judges adjudicating commercial disputes have little training in commercial law.  Those considering doing business in Laos are strongly urged to contact a reputable law firm for additional advice on contracts.

One positive development from 2019 is that under the leadership of MOIC, Laos became the 92nd State Party to join the United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

As discussed above, the 2009 Law on Investment promotion was amended in November 2016. The new law provides more transparency regarding regulations and procedures, and provides greater detail about what specific responsibilities fall under the Ministry of Planning and Investment.  The 2016 Law on Investment Promotion introduced uniform business registration requirements and tax incentives that apply equally to foreign and domestic investors.  As noted above, foreigners may invest in any sector or business except in cases where the government deems the investment to be detrimental to national security, health, or national traditions, or to have a negative impact on the natural environment.  Aside from these sectors, there are no statutory limits on foreign ownership or control of commercial enterprises.  For reasons discussed above, despite changes in the law, many companies continue to seek a local partner.

Most laws of interest to investors are featured on the Lao Trade Portal website, http://www.laotradeportal.gov.la, with many laws and regulations translated into English, or the Lao Official Gazette, http://laoofficialgazette.gov.la, or the official website of the Investment Promotion Department (MPI), www.investlaos.gov.la, or the newly created Lao Law App.

In sum, neither the government’s investment bureaucracy nor the commercial court system is well developed, although the former is improving and reforming.  Investors have experienced government practices that deviate significantly from publicly available law and regulation.  Some investors decry the courts’ limited ability to handle commercial disputes and vulnerability to corruption.  The Lao government has repeatedly underscored its commitment to increasing predictability in the investment environment, but in practice, with some exceptions in the creation and operation of SEZs, and investments by larger companies, foreign investors describe inconsistent application of law and regulation.

Competition and Antitrust Laws

There have been no updates since 2017.  A new competition law was approved in 2015 that applies to both foreign and domestic individuals and entities.  The law was drafted with the assistance of the German government and other donors.  The competition law was one of the Lao government’s policy efforts to implement the ASEAN Economic Community, or AEC, before 2016.  The law established two new government entities, the Business Competition Control (BCC) Commission and the BCC Secretariat.  The BCC Commission is the senior body and its membership is decided by the Prime Minister with the advice of the Minister of Industry and Commerce (MOIC).  According to the legislation, it should include senior officials from multiple ministries as well as business people, economists, and lawyers.  The BCC Commission can draft regulations, approve mergers, levy penalties, and provide overall guidance on government competition policy and regulation.  The BCC Secretariat, a lower-level institution equivalent to a MOIC department or division, can hear complaints, conduct investigations, and conduct research and reporting at the request of the Commission.

Expropriation and Compensation 

According to law, foreign assets and investments in Laos are protected against seizure, confiscation, or nationalization except when deemed necessary for a public purpose.  Public purpose can be broadly defined, however, and land grabs are feared by Lao nationals and expatriates alike.  In the event of a government expropriation, the Lao government is supposed to provide fair market compensation.  Nevertheless, a business relying on a specific parcel of land may lose its investment license if the land is in dispute.  Revocation of an investment license cannot be appealed to an independent body, and companies whose licenses are revoked must quickly liquidate their assets.  Small landholdings, land with unclear title, or land on which taxes have not been paid are at particular risk of expropriation.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention 

The Decree on Establishment of Private Economic Dispute Resolution as specified under Article 4 of the Law on Economic Dispute Resolution No.51/NA, (2018) provides for private arbitration bodies in Lao PDR. However, the regulatory framework to enable the private sector to establish an alternative channel for business arbitration is still under development with assistance from international donors like USAID.

Laos is not a member state to the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID Convention).  It is, however, a signatory to the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (1958 New York Convention).

Investor-State Dispute Settlement 

According to the Law on Investment Promotion, resolution of a dispute resolution should proceed through the following process: mediation, administrative dispute resolution, dispute resolution by the Committee for Economic Dispute Resolution, and finally, litigation.  However, due to the underdeveloped state of the Lao legal system, foreign investors are generally advised to seek arbitration outside of the country.  There are few publicly available records on international investment disputes.   According to the 2016 investment promotion law, Article 96 on Dispute Resolution by the Office for Economic Dispute Resolution in the Lao PDR or international organization to which Lao PDR is a party states: “When there is an investment-related dispute, either party thereto shall have the rights to request the Office for Economic Dispute Resolution for resolution within the Lao PDR or abroad as agreed by the parties of the dispute. The Lao PDR recognizes and enforces the award of foreign or international arbitration subject to certification by the people’s court of Lao PDR.”  However, in practice, the Embassy is not aware of this new article being successfully exercised by a foreign investor.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Beyond those listed above, there are no formal Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanisms provided in Lao law but based on the amended Investment Promotion Law and the law on Investment resolution law dated June 22, 2018, both parties can decide if they would like to have the arbitration in Laos or abroad as mentioned in the contract.  There is no known history of Laos enforcing foreign commercial arbitral decisions.

Bankruptcy Regulations

The 1994 bankruptcy law permits either the business or creditor the right to petition the court for a bankruptcy judgment and allows businesses the right to request mediation.  The law also authorizes liquidation of assets based upon the request of a debtor or creditor.  However, there is no record of a foreign-owned enterprise, whether as debtor or as creditor, petitioning the courts for a bankruptcy judgment.  According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Report, Laos remainslast in global rankings for ease of resolving insolvency.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

Laos offers a range of investment incentives depending on the investment vehicle, with particular focus on government concessions and Special Economic Zones.  Many of these incentives can be found at www.investlaos.gov.la and are generally governed by the Investment Promotion Law.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

The new Foreign Investment Law allows for the establishment of Special Economic Zones and Specific Economic Zones (both referred to as SEZs).  Special Economic Zones are intended to support development of new infrastructure and commercial facilities, and include incentives for investment.  Specific Economic Zones are intended for the development of existing infrastructure and facilities, and provide a lower level of incentives and support than Special Economic Zones.  Laos has announced plans to construct as many as 40 special and specific zones, but as of 2020, it has only established 12.  Some, such as Savan Seno SEZ in Savannakhet and Vientiane Industry and Trade Area SEZ, or VITA Park, in Vientiane, have successfully attracted foreign investors.  Others are accused of harboring illegal activities, such as the Golden Triangle SEZ in Bokeo Province that houses the Kings Roman Casino.  The Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control in early 2018 designated the Kings Roman Casino and its owners a Transnational Criminal Organization for engaging in drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, bribery, and wildlife trafficking.  More Chinese-invested SEZs are expected to open in the coming years, especially along the China-Laos Railway line. Thai companies are also exploring new SEZ-style industrial parks in Laos.

Generally, the Lao government places a high priority on trade facilitation measures in international fora, particularly as it relies upon trade across its neighboring countries in order to reach seaports.  Since 2012, customs management has been modernized through the implementation of ASYCUDA assisted by the United Nation and the World Bank to operate customs declarations and border inspections across international check points, including airports and SEZs.  The government is also developing a National Single window to facilitate requests and issue permits for the import, export, and transit of all goods, which is now fully in force nationwide.  Apparently, such approaches reduced the use of paperwork and time involving customs clearance, i.e. from 2 days in the past to less than 8 hours in 2020.

With assistance from Japan, the Lao government instituted a new system for electronic collection of customs fees at several major border crossings in 2016, which is a significant improvement, and in early 2019 the Department of Customs introduced electronic customs payments at the Lao – Thai Friendship Bridge for passengers.  On several border crossings with Vietnam, Lao and Vietnamese officials jointly conduct inspections to facilitate movement of goods.

On top of these actions, the government published a new version of the Tax Law (No. 81/NA) in late 2020 focusing on trade facilitation rather than revenue collection with eliminating some agencies in the approval process.  Nonetheless, Laos has struggled to harmonize its own internal processes.  For example, customs practices vary widely at different ports of entry.

Performance and Data Localization Requirements 

Laos does not have performance requirements.  Requirements relating to foreign hiring are governed by the 2014 Labor Law, but in practice, large investors have been able to extract additional government concessions on use of foreign labor.  Some foreign-owned businesses have criticized labor regulations for strict requirements that foreign employees not travel abroad during the first months of their Lao residency.

Laos does not currently have enacted laws or regulations on domestic data storage or localization requirements.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

In 2020, the government published the revised Law on Land, which is available at https://www.laoofficialgazette.gov.la/index.php?r=site/index.  While restriction on the ownership rights of foreigners towards land remains unchanged, the revised law allows immovable properties to be owned and invested in by foreign nationals.  This significant change in the regulatory framework is expected to accelerate investment and development in the Lao PDR’s real estate sector.

Apart from the Land Law, Article 16 of the 2016 Law on Investment Promotion allows investors to obtain land for use through long-term leases or as concessions, and allows the ownership of leases and the right to transfer and improve leasehold interests.  Government approval is not required to transfer property interests, but the transfer must be registered and a registration fee paid.  According to the World Bank’s Doing Business Report, Laos ranked 88th out of 190 countries in terms of registering property in 2020.

Under existing law, a creditor may enforce security rights against a debtor and the concept of a mortgage does exist.  The Lao government is currently engaged in a land parceling and titling project, but it remains difficult to determine if a piece of property is encumbered in Laos.  Enforcement of mortgages is complicated by the legal protection given mortgagees against forfeiture of their sole place of residence.

Laos provides for secured interests in moveable and non-moveable property under the 2005 Law on Secured Transactions and a 2011 implementing decree from the Prime Minister.  In 2013, the State Assets Management Authority at the Ministry of Finance launched a new Secured Transaction Registry (STR), intended to expand access to credit for individuals and smaller firms.  The STR allows for registration of movable assets such as vehicles and equipment so that they may be easily verified by financial institutions and used as collateral for loans.

Outside of urban areas, land rights can be even more complex.  Titles and ownership are not clear, and some areas practice communal titling.

Intellectual Property Rights

Intellectual property protection in Laos is weak, but steadily improving.  The USAID-funded Lao PDR-U.S. International and ASEAN Integration (USAID LUNA II) project assisted the Lao government’s efforts to increase its capacity in the area of IPR and to progress on the IPR-related commitments undertaken as a part of Laos’ 2013 WTO accession package.  USAID LUNA II worked with the Ministry of Science and Technology’s Department of Intellectual Property to establish an online portal that provides detailed information regarding the registration of copyrights, trademarks, Geographic Indicators and Plant Varieties, https://dip.gov.la.  Interested individuals can use the portal to complete the application forms online.  The portal officially launched in February 2019.  Additionally, USAID LUNA II provided technical support to the Lao government in amending the Law on Intellectual Property.

The government announced the dissolution of the Ministry of Science and Technology on February 2021.  Consequently, the MOIC is now responsible for the issuance of patents, copyrights, and trademarks.  Laos is a member of the ASEAN Common Filing System on patents but lacks qualified patent examiners. The bilateral Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) agreement between Thailand and Laos dictates that a patent issued in Thailand also be recognized in Laos.

Laos is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Convention and the Paris Convention on the Protection of Industrial Property but has not yet joined the Berne Convention on Copyrights.

In 2011 the National Assembly passed a comprehensive revision of the Law on Intellectual Property which brings it into compliance with WIPO and Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property standards (TRIPS).  Amendments to the 2011 Law on Intellectual Property were made public in May 2018.  The consolidation of responsibility for IPR under the Ministry of Science and Technology is a positive development, but the Ministry lacks enforcement capacity.

Laos is not listed in USTR’s Special 301 Report or the Notorious Markets report.

For additional information about treaty obligations and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/.

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

Laos does not have a well-developed capital market, although government policies increasingly support the formation of capital and free flow of financial resources.  The Lao Securities Exchange (LSX) began operations in 2011 with two stocks listed, both of them state-owned – the Banque Pour l’Commerce Exterieur (BCEL), and the power generation arm of the electrical utility, Electricite du Laos – Generation (EDL-Gen).  In 2012, the Lao government increased the proportion of shares that foreigners can hold on the LSX from 10 to 20 percent.  As of March 2021, there are eleven companies listed on the LSX: BCEL, EDL-Gen, Petroleum Trading Laos (fuel stations), Lao World (property development and management), Souvanny Home Center (home goods retail), Phousy Construction and Development (Construction and real estate development), Lao Cement (LCC), Mahathuen Leasing (leasing), Lao Agrotech (palm oil plantation and extraction factory), Vientiane Center (property development and management), and Lao ASEAN Leasing (LALCO) ( financing and leasing).  News and information about the LSX is available at http://www.lsx.com.la/.

Businesses report that they are often unable to exchange kip into foreign currencies through central or local banks.  Analysts suggest that concerns about dollar reserves may have led to temporary problems in the convertibility of the national currency.  Private banks allege that the Bank of Lao PDR withholds dollar reserves.  The Bank of Lao PDR alleges that the private banks already hold sizable reserves and have been reluctant to give foreign exchange to their customers in order to maintain unreasonably high reserves.  The tightness in the forex market led to a temporary 9.1 percent divergence between official and gray-market currency rates in December 2020, and since 2017 the Lao kip has depreciated against both the dollar and Thai baht.

Lao and foreign companies alike, and especially small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), note the lack of long-term credit in the domestic market.  Loans repayable over more than five years are very rare, and the choice of credit instruments in the local market is limited.  The Credit Information Bureau, developed to help inject more credit into markets, still has very little information and has not yet succeeded in mitigating lender concerns about risk.

Money and Banking System

The banking system is under the supervision of the Bank of Lao PDR, the nation’s central bank, and includes more than 40 banks, most of them commercial.  Private foreign banks can establish branches in all provinces of Laos.  ATMs have become ubiquitous in urban centers.  Technical assistance to Laos’ financial sector has led to some reforms and significant improvements to Laos’ regulatory regime on anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism, but overall capacity within the financial governance structure remains poor.

The banking system is dominated by large, government-owned banks.  The health of the banking sector is difficult to determine given the lack of reliable data, though banks are widely believed to be poorly regulated and there is broad concern about bad debts and non-performing loans that have yet to be fully reconciled by the state-run banks, in particular.  The IMF and others have encouraged the Bank of Lao PDR to facilitate recapitalization of the state-owned banks to improve the resilience of the sector.

While publicly available data is difficult to find, non-performing loans are widely believed to be a major concern in the financial sector, fueled in part by years of rapid growth in private lending.  The government’s fiscal difficulties in 2013 and 2014 led to non-payment on government infrastructure projects.  The construction companies implementing the projects in turn could not pay back loans for capital used in construction.  Many analysts believe the full effects of the government’s fiscal difficulties have not yet worked their way through the economy.  In recent years, Laos is projected to continue running a budget deficit of 7.6 percent, which coupled with rising public or publicly held debt estimated to reach 69 percent of GDP, add to concerns about Laos’ fiscal outlook.  In 2018 Laos passed a new law on Public Debt Management aimed at reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio in the coming years.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

There are no published, formal restrictions on foreign exchange conversion, though restrictions have previously been reported, and because the market for Lao kip is relatively small, the currency is rarely convertible outside the immediate region.  Laos persistently maintains low levels of foreign reserves, which are estimated to cover only 1.1 months’ worth of total imports.  The reserve buffer is expected to remain relatively low due to structurally weak export growth in the non-resource sector and debt service payments.  The decline in reserves was due to a drawdown of government deposits primarily for external debt service payments, some intervention in the foreign exchange market to manage the volatility of the currency (notwithstanding a more flexible currency), and financing the continuing current account deficit. The Bank of the Lao PDR (BOL) occasionally imposes daily limits on converting funds from Lao kip into U.S. dollars and Thai baht, or restricts the sectors able to convert Lao kip into dollars, sometimes leading to difficulties in obtaining foreign exchange in Laos.

In order to facilitate business transactions, foreign investors generally open commercial bank accounts in both local and foreign convertible currency at domestic and foreign banks in Laos.  The Enterprise Accounting Law places no limitations on foreign investors transferring after-tax profits, income from technology transfer, initial capital, interest, wages and salaries, or other remittances to the company’s home country or third countries provided that they request approval from the Lao government.  Foreign enterprises must report on their performance annually and submit annual financial statements to the Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI).

According to a recent report from Laos’ National Institute for Economic Research (NIER), the increasing demand for USD and Thai baht for the import of capital equipment for projects and consumer goods,  coupled with growing demand for foreign currency to pay off foreign debts has resulted in a depreciation of the exchange rate in 2020.  The official nominal kip/U.S. dollar reference rate depreciated 6.23 percent  in 2020, while the kip/baht exchange rate depreciated  8.15 percent.

Remittance Policies

There have been no recent changes to remittance law or policy in Laos.  Formally, all remittances abroad, transfers into Laos, foreign loans, and payments not denominated in Lao kip must be approved by the BOL.  In practice, many remittances are understood to flow into Laos informally, and relatively easily, from a sizeable Lao workforce based in Thailand.  Remittance-related rules can be vague and official practice is reportedly inconsistent.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

There are no known sovereign wealth funds in Laos.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

The Lao government maintains ownership stakes in key sectors of the economy such as telecommunications, energy, finance, airlines, and mining.  Where state interests conflict with private ownership, the state is in a position of advantage.

There is no centralized, publicly available list of Lao State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs).  The Lao government’s most recent figures report that there are approximately 152 SOEs in Lao PDR.  133 SOEs are 51 – 100 percent owned by the state, and the registered capital is more than  USD 26 billion.  At the end of 2017 the total assets of 60 SOEs managed by the State Property Management Department of the Ministry of Finance was more than USD13 billion (80.51 percent of GDP).  The net profit from SOEs was around USD156 million of which USD105 million was in government dividends.

The government has not specified a code or policy for its management of SOEs and has not adopted OECD guidelines for Corporate Governance of SOEs.  There is no single government body that oversees SOEs.  Several separate government entities exercise SOE ownership in different industries.  SOE senior management does not uniformly report to a line minister.  Comprehensive information on boards of directors or their independence is not publicly available.  While there is scant evidence one way or the other, private businesses generally assume that court decisions would favor an SOE over another party in an investment dispute.

Privatization Program 

There is no formal SOE privatization program, though Prime Minister Thongloun has openly discussed subjecting some SOEs to greater competition and possible privatization, and the government has over the past several years occasionally floated ideas for increasing private ownership in some SOEs through partial listings on the LSX, or through spinning off and privatizing parts of others.  In the near future, the new government might take concrete action regarding this matter in order to accelerate investment and improve SOE performance.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

There is low general awareness of responsible business conduct (RBC) and corporate social responsibility (CSR).  There is no systematic government or NGO monitoring of RBC.  RBC is not generally included in the government’s investment policy formulations.  No human rights concern relating to RBC is reported so far.  There is no private security industry in Laos.

Additional Resources

Department of State

Department of Labor

9. Corruption

Corruption is a serious problem in Laos that affects all levels of the economy.  The Lao government has developed several anti-corruption laws but enforcement remains weak.  When he assumed office in early 2016, then Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith focused on government anti-corruption efforts.  Lao media and the National Assembly now regularly report on corruption challenges and the sacking or disciplining of corrupt officials.  In September 2009, Laos ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption.  In March 2021, Thongloun was named President of the Lao PDR.  He and newly appointed Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh have indicated they will continue to prioritize good governance in their new administration.

Domestic and international firms have repeatedly identified corruption as a problem in the business environment and a major detractor for international firms exploring investment or business activities in the local market.

The Lao State Inspection and Anti-Corruption Authority (SIAA), an independent, ministry-level body, is in charge of analyzing corruption at the national level and serves as a central office for gathering details and evidence of suspected corruption.  Additionally, each ministry and province contains an SIAA office independent from the organization in which it is housed.  These SIAA offices feed into the SIAA’s central system.

According to Lao law, both giving and accepting bribes are criminal acts punishable by fine and/or imprisonment.  Nonetheless, foreign businesses frequently cite corruption as an obstacle to operating in Laos.  Often characterized as a fee for urgent service, officials commonly accept bribes for the purpose of approving or expediting applications.  Laos is not a signatory to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery.

In 2014, an asset declaration regime entered into force for government officials, which required them to declare income, assets and debts for themselves and their family members; this was further strengthened in 2017 and 2018.  Officials are now required to file a declaration of any assets valued over USD 2,500, including land, structures, vehicles and equipment, as well as cash, gold, and financial instruments.  These declarations are reportedly held privately and securely by the government.  If a corruption complaint is made against an official, the SIAA can compare the sealed declaration with the official’s current wealth.  Whether this program has worked or is working remains unclear.

Resources to Report Corruption 

Contact at government agency or agencies responsible for combating corruption:

Mr. Viengkeo PhonAsa
Director General
Anti-Corruption Department, State Inspection and Anti-Corruption Authority
Sivilay Village, Xaythany District, Vientiane Capital, 13th South Road
Tel: office:, 021 715032; Fax: 021 715006; cell: 020 2222 5432

10. Political and Security Environment

Laos is generally a peaceful and politically stable country.  In 2021, Laos once again had an orderly change of administration under its one-party system.  The risk of political violence directed at foreign enterprises or businesspersons is low.  There has been little-to-no political violence in the last decade, and Laos’ political stability is an attractive feature for foreign investors.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

Despite Laos’ young population, approximately 62 percent of which are 30 years of age or younger, the labor market remains tight with employers reporting shortages of labor at all levels, especially skilled labor, reflecting the relatively low level of educational attainment within Laos.  The government enacted a new labor law in late 2014 that established many new protections for workers.  It also contained provisions aimed at increasing the skills of the Lao labor force and established stricter provisions on the hiring of foreign workers.

The new law also authorized independent worker’s groups to elect their own leaders and to represent their interests and engage in collective bargaining on their behalf.  The Lao Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU), which is associated with the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, is the primary representative of labor and represents workers in tripartite processes.  Laos’ National Assembly passed a new Trade Union Law in November 2017 but the impact of the new law on the labor market and foreign investors has yet to be determined.  No official English translations of the final Trade Union Law are publicly available.

Child labor is outlawed except under very strict, limited conditions that ensure no interference with the child’s education or physical wellbeing.  The 2014 law outlaws several forms of employment discrimination and provides standards for work hours.  The minimum wage is set by separate regulation, and in recent years has seen annual increases after a tripartite negotiation among LFTU, the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, and the Lao National Chamber of Commerce and Industry.  The 2014 law also established occupational health and safety standards, but inspections remain inconsistent.  An International Labor Organization project undertaken in 2015 and 2016 trained labor inspectors in basic practices, with particular focus on the garment industry.

Foreign investors using a concession as an investment vehicle are reportedly able to negotiate the percentage of foreign labor to be used in the investment.  However, labor standards such as minimum wage and health and safety standards should apply uniformly regardless of investment vehicle or use of a special economic zone.  In 2018, the minimum wage was approximately USD130 per month.

The new labor law authorizes strikes if several steps of dispute resolution fail; however, there is no record of strikes occurring in Laos.  A cultural distaste for open confrontation and the general shortage of labor continue to make strikes highly unlikely.

Employment contracts are required under the labor law, but are rarely used in practice.  In February 2018, the government promulgated a new decree on labor dispute resolution.

Collective bargaining is typically undertaken by representatives of the Lao Federation of Trade Unions, though the 2014 labor law also provides the elected representative of independent worker’s groups the ability to negotiate their own collective bargaining agreements with employers.  Basic and subsistence agriculture, informal businesses, and small family businesses make up the vast majority of employment, thus collective bargaining is relatively rare in the overall economy and unfamiliar to many.

12. U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Other Investment Insurance and Development Finance Programs

The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), previously known as Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and Laos signed a bilateral agreement in 1996.  DFC currently has no exposure in Laos, but the organization is actively exploring options for programing in the country.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount  
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2019 $Amt 2019 $18,174 www.worldbank.org/en/country
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data:  BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 N/A 2019 N/A BEA data available at https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 N/A 2019 N/A BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 2019 N/A 2019 3% UNCTAD data available at

https://stats.unctad.org/handbook/EconomicTrends/Fdi.html   

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Data not available.
Table 4
Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Data not available.

14. Contact for More Information

Souliyakhom Thammavong
Commercial and Economic Assistant
U.S. Embassy, Vientiane
+856 21 487000
ThammavongS@state.gov

Thailand

Executive Summary

Thailand is an upper middle-income country with a half-trillion-dollar economy, pro-investment policies, and well-developed infrastructure. General Prayut Chan-o-cha was elected by Parliament as Prime Minister on June 5, 2019. Thailand celebrated the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn May 4-6, 2019, formally returning a King to the Head of State of Thailand’s constitutional monarchy. Despite some political uncertainty, Thailand continues to encourage foreign direct investment as a means of promoting economic development, employment, and technology transfer. In recent decades, Thailand has been a major destination for foreign direct investment, and hundreds of U.S. companies have invested in Thailand successfully. Thailand continues to encourage investment from all countries and seeks to avoid dependence on any one country as a source of investment.

The Foreign Business Act (FBA) of 1999 governs most investment activity by non-Thai nationals. Many U.S. businesses also enjoy investment benefits through the U.S.-Thai Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations, signed in 1833 and updated in 1966. The Treaty allows U.S. citizens and U.S. majority-owned businesses incorporated in the United States or Thailand to maintain a majority shareholding or to wholly own a company, branch office, or representative office located in Thailand, and engage in business on the same basis as Thai companies (national treatment). The Treaty exempts such U.S.-owned businesses from most FBA restrictions on foreign investment, although the Treaty excludes some types of businesses. Notwithstanding their Treaty rights, many U.S. investors choose to form joint ventures with Thai partners who hold a majority stake in the company, leveraging their partner’s knowledge of the Thai economy and local regulations.

The Thai government maintains a regulatory framework that broadly encourages investment. Some investors have nonetheless expressed views that the framework is overly restrictive, with a lack of consistency and transparency in rulemaking and interpretation of law and regulations.

The Board of Investment (BOI), Thailand’s principal investment promotion authority, acts as a primary conduit for investors. BOI offers businesses assistance in navigating Thai regulations and provides investment incentives to qualified domestic and foreign investors through straightforward application procedures. Investment incentives include both tax and non-tax privileges.

The government passed laws on cybersecurity and personal data protection in 2019; as of April 2021, they are still in the process of drafting implementing regulations. The government unveiled in January 2021 a Made In Thailand initiative that will set aside 60 percent of state projects for locally made products.

Gratuity payments to civil servants responsible for regulatory oversight and enforcement remain a common practice, though some government agencies enforce strict “gift” bans. Firms that refuse to make such payments can be placed at a competitive disadvantage to other firms that do engage in such practices. The government launched its Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) development plan in 2017. The EEC is a part of the “Thailand 4.0” economic development strategy introduced in 2016. Many planned infrastructure projects, including a high-speed train linking three airports, U-Tapao Airport commercialization, and Laem Chabang Port expansion, could provide opportunities for investments and sales of U.S. goods and services. In support of its “Thailand 4.0” strategy, the government offers incentives for investments in twelve targeted industries: next-generation automotive vehicles; intelligent electronics; advanced agriculture and biotechnology; food processing; tourism; advanced robotics and automation; digital technology; integrated aviation; medical hub and total healthcare services; biofuels/biochemical; defense manufacturing; and human resource development.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 104 of 179 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview 
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2019 21 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings 
Global Innovation Index 2020 44 of 131 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator 
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2019 USD 17,738 https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/ 
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 USD 7,260 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD 

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

Americans planning to invest in Thailand are advised to obtain qualified legal advice. Thai business regulations are governed predominantly by criminal, not civil, law. Foreigners are rarely jailed for improper business activities, yet violations of business regulations can carry heavy criminal penalties. Thailand has an independent judiciary and government authorities are generally not permitted to interfere in the court system once a case is in process.

Thailand continues to generally welcome investment from all countries and seeks to avoid dependence on any one country as a source of investment. However, the FBA prescribes a wide range of business that may not be conducted by foreigners without additional licenses or exemptions. The term “foreigner” includes Thai-registered companies in which half or more of the capital is held by non-Thai individuals and foreign-registered companies. Although the FBA prohibits majority foreign ownership in many sectors, U.S. investors registered under the United States-Thailand Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations (AER) are exempt. Nevertheless, the AER’s privileges do not extend to U.S. investments in the following areas: communications; transportation; fiduciary functions; banking involving depository functions; the exploitation of land or other natural resources; domestic trade in indigenous agricultural products; and the practice of professions reserved for Thai nationals.

The Board of Investment (BOI) assists Thai and foreign investors to establish and conduct businesses in targeted economic sectors by offering both tax and non-tax incentives. In recent years Thailand has taken steps to reform its business regulations and has improved processes and reduced time required to start a business from 29 days to 6 days. Thailand has steadily improved its ranking in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report in the last several years and now occupies the 21st position out of 190 countries in the 2019 ranking, trailing only Singapore (2) and Malaysia (12) in the ASEAN bloc. Thai officials routinely make themselves available to investors through discussions with foreign chambers of commerce.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Various Thai laws set forth foreign-ownership restrictions in certain sectors. These restrictions primarily concern services such as banking, insurance, and telecommunications. The FBA details the types of business activities reserved for Thai nationals. Foreign investment in those businesses must comprise less than 50 percent of share capital, unless specially permitted or otherwise exempt.

The following three lists detail FBA-restricted businesses for foreigners.

List 1.  This contains activities non-nationals are prohibited from engaging in, including: newspaper and radio broadcasting stations and businesses; agricultural businesses; forestry and timber processing from a natural forest; fishery in Thai territorial waters and specific economic zones; extraction of Thai medicinal herbs; trading and auctioning of antique objects or objects of historical value from Thailand; making or casting of Buddha images and monk alms bowls; and land trading.

List 2. This contains activities related to national safety or security, arts and culture, traditional industries, folk handicrafts, natural resources, and the environment. Restrictions apply to the production, distribution and maintenance of firearms and armaments; domestic transportation by land, water, and air; trading of Thai antiques or art objects; mining, including rock blasting and rock crushing; and timber processing for production of furniture and utensils. A foreign majority-owned company can engage in List 2 activities if Thai nationals or legal persons hold not less than 40 percent of the total shares and the number of Thai directors is not less than two-fifths of the total number of directors. Foreign companies also require prior approval and a license from the Council of Ministers (Cabinet).

List 3. Restricted businesses in this list include accounting, legal, architectural, and engineering services; retail and wholesale; advertising businesses; hotels; guided touring; selling food and beverages; and other service-sector businesses. A foreign company can engage in List 3 activities if a majority of the limited company’s shares are held by Thai nationals. Any company with a majority of foreign shareholders (more than 50 percent) cannot engage in List 3 activities unless it receives an exception from the Ministry of Commerce under its Foreign Business License (FBL) application.

Aside from these general categories, Thailand does not maintain a national security screening mechanism for investment, and investors can receive additional incentives/privileges if they invest in priority areas, such as high-technology industries. Investors should contact the Board of Investment [https://www.boi.go.th/index.php?page=index] for the latest information on specific investment incentives.

The U.S.-Thai Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations allows approved businesses to engage in FBA restricted businesses detailed above in Lists 1, 2, and 3. However, the Treaty does not exempt U.S. investments from restrictions applicable to: owning land; fiduciary functions; banking involving depository functions; inland communications & transportation; exploitation of land and other natural resources; and domestic trade in agricultural products.

To operate restricted businesses as defined by the FBA’s List 2 and 3, non-Thai entities must obtain a foreign business license. These licenses are approved by the Council of Ministers (Cabinet) and/or Director-General of the MOC’s Department of Business Development, depending on the business category.

Every year, the MOC reviews business categories on the three FBA lists. Businesses no longer subject to restrictions include regional office services and contractual services provided to government bodies and state-owned enterprises. In an effort to further reduce obstacles to foreign investment, four business types under List 3, otherwise supervised by specific acts, were removed from the restricted list in 2019 and 2020. Those businesses include telecommunication services for license type 1 (telecommunication business operator without its own network for services); financial centers; aviation/aircraft maintenance; and software development.

American investors who wish to take majority shares or wholly own businesses under FBA’s Annex 3 list may apply for benefits under the U.S.-Thai Treaty of Amity. https://2016.export.gov/thailand/treaty/index.asp#P5_233 

The U.S. Commercial Service, U.S. Embassy Bangkok is responsible for issuing a certification letter to confirm that a U.S. company is qualified to apply for benefits under the Treaty of Amity. The applicant must first obtain documents verifying that the company has been registered in compliance with Thai law. Upon receipt of the required documents, the U.S. Commercial Service office will then certify to the Foreign Administration Division, Department of Business Development, Ministry of Commerce (MOC) that the applicant is seeking to register an American-owned and managed company or that the applicant is an American citizen and is therefore entitled to national treatment under the provisions of the Treaty. For more information on how to apply for benefits under the Treaty of Amity, please e-mail ktantisa@trade.gov.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

The World Trade Organization conducted a Trade Policy Review of Thailand in November 2020 (https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tpr_e/tp500_e.htm). The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concluded its Investment Policy Review for Thailand in January 2021 (https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/c4eeee1c-en/index.html?itemId=/content/publication/c4eeee1c-en).

Business Facilitation

The MOC’s Department of Business Development (DBD) is generally responsible for business registration. Registration can be performed online or manually. Registration documentation must be submitted in the Thai language. Many foreign entities hire a local law firm or consulting firm to handle their applications. Firms engaging in production activities also must register with the Ministry of Industry and the Ministry of Labor and Social Development.

A company is required to have registered capital of two million Thai baht per foreign employee in order to obtain work permits. Additionally, foreign companies may have no more than 20% foreign employees on staff. Companies that have obtained special BOI investment incentives may be exempted from this requirement. Foreign employees must enter the country on a non-immigrant visa and then submit work permit applications directly to the Department of Labor. Application processing takes approximately one week. For more information on Thailand visas, please refer to http://www.mfa.go.th/main/en/services/4908/15388-Non-Immigrant-Visa- percent22B percent22-for-Business-and.html.

In February 2018, the Thai government launched a Smart Visa program for investors in targeted industries and foreigners with expertise in specialized technologies. Under this program, foreigners can be granted a maximum four-year visa to work in Thailand without having to obtain a work permit or re-entry permit. Other relaxed immigration rules include having visa holders report to the Bureau of Immigration just once per year (instead of every 90 days) and providing the visa holder’s spouse and children many of the same privileges as the primary visa holder. More information is available online at https://smart-visa.boi.go.th/home_detail/general_information.php and by telephone at +662-209-1100 ext. 1109-1110.

Outward Investment

In 2020, Thai companies continued to expand and invest overseas despite the pandemic. These investments primarily target neighboring ASEAN countries, China, the United States, and Europe. A relatively strong domestic currency, rising cash holdings, and subdued domestic growth prospects are helping to drive outward investment. The baht depreciated over 4 percent against the dollar in Q1 2021. Faced with the effects of the pandemic, the government may prioritize domestic investment to stimulate the economy.

Previously, food, ago-industry, energy, and chemical sectors accounted for the main share of outward flows. Purchasing shares, developing partnerships, and making acquisitions help Thai investors acquire technologies for parent companies and expand supply chains in international markets. Thai corporate laws allow outbound investments to be made by an independent affiliate (foreign company), a branch of a Thai legal entity, or by any Thai company in the case of financial investments abroad. BOI and the MOC’s Department of International Trade Promotion (DITP) share responsibility for promoting outward investment. BOI focuses on outward investment in ASEAN (especially Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam) and emerging economies. DITP covers smaller markets.

2. Bilateral Investment Agreements and Taxation Treaties

The 1966 U.S.-Thai Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations allows U.S. citizens and U.S. majority-owned businesses to engage in business on the same basis as Thai companies (national treatment). The Treaty exempts qualified companies from most of the foreign investment restrictions imposed by Thailand’s Foreign Business Act (FBA). As described above, the Treaty does not exempt U.S. investments from restrictions applicable to owning land; fiduciary functions; banking involving depository functions; inland communications & transportation; exploitation of land and other natural resources; and domestic trade in agricultural products.

In October 2002, the United States and Thailand signed a bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA). The TIFA established a regular government-to-government forum to discuss bilateral trade and investment issues. These have included intellectual property rights, customs, market-access barriers, and other areas of mutual concern.

Thailand has bilateral investment treaties with Argentina, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Canada, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Republic of Korea, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Netherlands, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Russian Federation (signed, not in force), Slovenia, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tajikistan (signed, not in force), Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe (signed, not in force).

Thailand has free trade agreements (FTAs) with Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, India, South Korea, Peru, Chili, and Hong Kong. As of 2020, Thailand is pursuing FTA discussions with the European Union, Turkey, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom. Thailand belongs to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional free-trade and economic bloc comprising a total population of 600 million. ASEAN has free trade agreements with Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Korea, and Hong Kong. ASEAN also has a comprehensive economic partnership with Japan and is pursuing FTA discussions with the EU, Pakistan, and Canada.

Thailand’s Parliament approved ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free-trade bloc of 15 Indo-Pacific nations expected to take effect in 2021. Thailand has expressed interest in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which entered into force on December 30, 2018. In April 2020, however, Thailand shelved plans to negotiate near-term accession in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In February 2021 Thailand’s International Economic Policy Committee announced it will review the findings of a nine-month internal study on the costs and benefits of CPTPP membership.

Thailand and the United States concluded a bilateral tax treaty in 1996. The United States and Thailand signed an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) on the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) in 2016. The IGA will enter into force once all steps have been completed by both sides for ratification.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

Generally, Thai regulations are readily available to the public. Foreign investors have, on occasion, expressed frustration that draft regulations are not made public until they are finalized. Comments that stakeholders submit on draft regulations are not always taken into consideration. Non-governmental organizations report; however, the Thai government actively consults them on policy, especially in the health sector and on intellectual property issues. In other areas, such as digital and cybersecurity laws, the Thai government has taken stakeholders’ comments into account and amended draft laws accordingly.

U.S. businesses have repeatedly expressed concerns about Thailand’s customs regime. Complaints center on lack of transparency, the significant discretionary authority exercised by Customs Department officials, and a system of giving rewards to officials and non-officials for seized goods based on a percentage of their sales price. Specifically, the U.S. government and private sector have expressed concern about inconsistent application of Thailand’s transaction valuation methodology and the Customs Department’s repeated use of arbitrary values. Thailand’s latest Customs Act, which entered into force on November 13, 2017, is a moderate step forward. The Act removed the Customs Department Director General’s discretion to increase the customs value of imports. I t also reduced the percentage of remuneration awarded to officials and non-officials from 55 percent to 40 percent of the sale price of seized goods (or of the fine amount) with an overall limit of five million baht (USD160,000). While a welcome development, reduction of this remuneration is insufficient to remove the personal incentives given Customs officials to seize goods nor to address the conflicts of interest the system entails. Thai Customs is expected to announce new revisions to the Customs Act in 2021.

Consistent and predictable enforcement of government regulations remains problematic. In 2017, the Thai government launched a “regulatory guillotine” initiative to cut down on red tape, licenses, and permits. The policy focused on reducing and amending outdated regulations in order to improve Thailand’s ranking on the World Bank “Ease of Doing Business” report. The regulatory guillotine project has helped improve Thailand’s ranking and, although making slow progress, is still underway.

Gratuity payments to civil servants responsible for regulatory oversight and enforcement remain a common practice despite stringent gift bans at some government agencies. Firms that refuse to make such payments can be placed at a competitive disadvantage to other firms that do engage in such practices.

The Royal Thai Government Gazette (www.ratchakitcha.soc.go.th) is Thailand’s public journal of the country’s centralized online location of laws, as well as regulation notifications.

International Regulatory Considerations

Thailand is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and notifies most draft technical regulations to the Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Committee and the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Committee. However, Thailand does not always follow WTO and other international standard-setting norms or guidance but prefers to set its own standards in many cases. In October 2015, the country ratified the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, which came into effect in February 2017.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Thailand’s legal system is primarily based on the civil law system with a strong common law influence. Thailand has an independent judiciary that is generally effective in enforcing property and contractual rights. Most commercial and contractual disputes are generally governed by the Civil and Commercial Codes. The legal process is slow in practice and monetary compensation is based on actual damage that resulted directly from the wrongful act. Decisions of foreign courts are not accepted or enforceable in Thai courts.

There are three levels to the judicial system in Thailand: The Court of First Instance, which handles most matters at inception; the Court of Appeals; and the Supreme Court. There are also specialized courts, such as the Labor Court, Family Court, Tax Court, the Central Intellectual Property and International Trade Court, and the Bankruptcy Court.

The Specialized Appeal Court handles appeals from specialized courts. The Supreme Court has discretion whether to take a case that has been decided by the Specialized Appeal Court. If the Supreme Court decides not to take up a case, the Specialized Appeal Court decision stands.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

The Foreign Business Act or FBA (described in detail above) governs most investment activity by non-Thai nationals. Other key laws governing foreign investment are the Alien Employment Act (1978) and the Investment Promotion Act (1977). However, as explained above, many U.S. businesses enjoy investment benefits through the U.S.-Thailand Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations (often referred to as the ‘Treaty of Amity’), which was established to promote friendly relations between the two nations. Pursuant to the Treaty, American nationals are entitled to certain exceptions to the FBA restrictions.

Pertaining to the services sector, the 2008 Financial Institutions Business Act unified the legal framework and strengthened the Bank of Thailand’s (the country’s central bank) supervisory and enforcement powers. The Act allows the Bank of Thailand to raise foreign ownership limits for existing local banks from 25 percent to 49 percent on a case-by-case basis. The Minister of Finance can authorize foreign ownership exceeding 49 percent if recommended by the central bank. Details are available at  https://www.bot.or.th/English/AboutBOT/LawsAndRegulations/SiteAssets/Law_E24_Institution_Sep2011.pdf.

Apart from acquiring shares of existing (traditional) local banks, foreign banks can enter the Thai banking system by obtaining new licenses. The Ministry of Finance issues such licenses, following a consultation process with the Bank of Thailand. The Thai central bank is currently studying new licenses for digital-only banks, a tool meant to enhance financial inclusion and keep pace with consumer needs in the digital age. Digital-only banks can operate at a lower cost and offer different services than traditional banks.

The 2008 Life Insurance Act and the 2008 Non-Life Insurance Act apply a 25 percent cap on foreign ownership of insurance companies. Foreign boards of directors’ membership is also limited to 25 percent. However, in January 2016 the Office of the Insurance Commission (OIC), the primary insurance industry regulator, notified that Thai life or non-life insurance companies wishing to exceed these limits may apply to the OIC for approval. Any foreign national wishing to hold more than 10 percent of the voting shares in an insurance company must seek OIC approval. With approval, a foreign national can acquire up to 49 percent of the voting shares. Finally, the Finance Minister, with OIC’s positive recommendation, has discretion to permit greater than 49 percent foreign ownership and/or a majority of foreign directors, when the operation of the insurance company may cause loss to insured parties or to the public. OIC launched an insurtech sandbox in 2017 to allow industry to test new products. While OIC has not issued a new insurance license in the past 20 years, OIC is now contemplating issuing new virtual licenses for entrants wishing to sell insurance digitally without an intermediary, and digital licenses for existing insurers wishing to switch to digital sales only. Full details have not yet been announced.

The Board of Investment offers qualified investors several benefits and provides information to facilitate a smoother investment process in Thailand. Information on the BOI’s “One Start One Stop” investment center can be found at  http://osos.boi.go.th. A physical office is located on the 18th floor of Chamchuri Square on Rama 4/Phayathai Road in Bangkok.

Competition and Antitrust Laws

Thailand updated the Trade Competition Act on October 5, 2017. The updated Act covers all business activities, except state-owned enterprises exempted by law or cabinet resolution; specific activities related to national security, public benefit, common interest and public utility; cooperatives, agricultural and cooperative groups; government agencies; and other enterprises exempted by the law. The Act broadens the definition of a business operator to include affiliates and group companies, and broadens the liability of directors and management, subjecting them to criminal and administrative sanctions if their actions (or omissions) resulted in violations. The Act also provides details about penalties in cases involving administrative court or criminal court actions. The amended Act has been noted as an improvement over the prior legislation and a step towards Thailand’s adoption of international standards in this area.

The Office of Trade Competition Commission (OTCC) is an independent agency and the main enforcer of the Trade Competition Act B.E. 2560 (2018). The OTCC is comprised of seven members nominated by a selection committee and endorsed by the Cabinet. The Commission has the following responsibilities: advises the government on issuance of relevant regulations; ensures fair and free trade practices; investigates cases and complaints of unfair trade; and pursues criminal and disciplinary actions against those found guilty of unfair trade practices stipulated in the law. The law focuses on the following areas: unlawful exercise of market dominance; mergers or collusion that could lead to monopoly; unfair competition and restricting competition; and unfair trade practices. In November 2020, OTCC approved conglomerate Charoen Pokphand’s (CP Group) USD 10 billion acquisition of retail giant Tesco Lotus. Academics and consumer groups claim this merger would allow CP Group to hold more than 80 percent market share of Thailand’s wholesale and retail sector in some provinces, which would be non-compliant with the Trade Competition Act that aims to prevent any operator from holding more than 50 percent of the market share in any sector.

The Thai government, through the Central Commission on Price of Goods and Services, has the legal authority to control prices or set de facto price ceilings for selected goods and services, including staple agricultural products and feed ingredients (such as, pork, cooking oil, wheat flour, feed wheat, distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGs), and feed quality barley), liquefied petroleum gas, medicines, and sound recordings. In February 2020, the government added surgical masks, polypropylene (spunbond) for surgical mask production, alcohol for hand sanitizer, and wastepaper or recycled paper to the price-controlled products list. The controlled list is reviewed at least annually, but the price-control review mechanisms are non-transparent. In practice, Thailand’s government influences prices in the local market through its control of state monopoly suppliers of products and services, such as in the petroleum, oil, and gas industry sectors.

Expropriation and Compensation

Thai laws provide guarantees regarding protection from expropriation without compensation and non-discrimination for some, but not all, investors. Thailand’s Constitution provides protection from expropriation without fair compensation and requires the government to pass a specific, tailored expropriation law if the expropriation is required for the purpose of public utilities, national defense, acquisition of national resources, or for other public interests. The Investment Promotion Act also guarantees the government shall not nationalize the operations and assets of BOI-promoted investors.

The Expropriation of Immovable Property Act (EIP), most recently amended in 2019, applies to all property owners, whether foreign or domestic nationals. The Act provides a framework and clear procedures for expropriation; sets forth detailed provision and measures for compensation of landowners, lessees and other persons that may be affected by an expropriation; and recognizes the right to appeal decisions to Thai courts. The 2019 EIP requires the government to return land that was expropriated but has not been used back to the original property owners. However, the EIP and Investment Promotion Act do not protect against indirect expropriation and do not distinguish between compensable and non-compensable forms of indirect expropriation.

Thailand has a well-established system for land rights that is generally upheld in practice, but the legislation governing land tenure still significantly restricts foreigners’ rights to acquire land.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Thailand is a signatory to the New York Convention, which means that investors can enforce arbitral awards in any other signatory country. Thailand signed the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes in 1985 but has not ratified it. Therefore, most foreign investors covered under Thailand’s treaties with investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions that are limited to ICSID arbitration have not been able to bring ISDS claims against Thailand under these treaties.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

Thailand is party to bilateral investment treaties with 46 nations. Two treaties – with the Netherlands and United States (Treaty of Amity) – do not include binding dispute resolution provisions. This means that investors covered under these treaties are unable to pursue international arbitration proceedings against the Thai government without first obtaining the government’s consent. There have been two notable cases of investor-state disputes in the last fifteen years, neither of which involved U.S. companies. The first case involved a concession agreement for a construction project filed under the Germany-Thailand bilateral investment treaty. In the second case, Thailand is engaged in a dispute over the government’s invocation of special powers to shut down a gold mine in early 2017.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

Thailand’s Arbitration Act of 2002, modeled in part after the UNCITRAL Model Law, governs domestic and international arbitration proceedings. The Act states that “in cases where an arbitral award was made in a foreign country, the award shall be enforced by the competent court only if it is subject to an international convention, treaty, or agreement to which Thailand is a party.” Any arbitral award between parties subject to the New York Convention should thus be enforced. The following organizations provide arbitration services in Thailand: the Thai Arbitration Institute of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Office; Office of the Judiciary; and the Office of the Arbitration Tribunal of the Board of Trade of Thailand. In addition, the semi-public Thai Arbitration Center offers mediation and arbitration for civil and commercial disputes. An amendment to the Arbitration Act that allows foreign arbitrators to take part in cases involving foreign parties came into force on April 15, 2019. Under very limited circumstances, a court can set aside an arbitration award.

Bankruptcy Regulations

Thailand’s bankruptcy law is modeled after that of the United States. The law authorizes restructuring proceedings that require trained judges who specialize in bankruptcy matters to preside. According to the law, bankruptcy is defined as a state in which courts permit the distribution of assets belonging to a debtor among the creditors within the parameters of the law. Thailand’s bankruptcy law allows for corporate restructuring similar to U.S. Chapter 11 and does not criminalize bankruptcy. The law also distinguishes between secured and unsecured claims, with the former prioritized. While bankruptcy is under consideration, creditors can request the following ex parte applications from the Bankruptcy Court: an examination by the receiver of all the debtor’s assets and/or that the debtor attend questioning on the existence of assets; a requirement that the debtor provide satisfactory security to the court; and immediate seizure of the debtor’s assets and/or evidence in order to prevent the loss or destruction of such items.

The law stipulates that all applications for repayment must be made within one month after the Bankruptcy Court publishes the appointment of an official receiver. If a creditor eligible for repayment does not apply within this period, the creditor forfeits his/her right to receive payment or the court may cancel the order to reorganize the business. If any person opposes a filing, the receiver shall investigate the matter and approve, partially approve, or dismiss the application. Any objections to the orders issued by the receiver may be filed with the court within 14 days after learning of the issued order.

Within bankruptcy proceedings, it is also possible to undertake a “composition” in order to avoid a long and protracted process. A composition takes place when a debtor expresses in writing a desire to settle his/her debts, either partially or in any other manner, within seven days of submitting an explanation of matters related to the bankruptcy or during a time period prescribed by the receiver. After the proposal for a composition has been submitted, the receiver calls for a meeting among creditors to consider whether or not to accept the proposal. If the proposal is accepted, the court will approve the composition in order to legally execute the proposal; however, it will only do so if the proposal includes clear provisions for the repayment of debts. Despite these laws, some U.S. businesses complain that Thailand’s bankruptcy courts in practice can slow legislative processes to the detriment of outside firms seeking to acquire assets liquidated in bankruptcy processes.

The National Credit Bureau of Thailand (NCB) provides the financial services industry with information on consumers and businesses. The NCB is required to provide the financial services sector with payment history information from utility companies, retailers and merchants, and trade creditors.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

The Board of Investment:

The Board of Investment offers investment incentives to qualified domestic and foreign investors. To upgrade the country’s technological capacity, the BOI presently gives more weight to applications in high-tech, innovative, and sustainable industries. These include digital technology, “smart agriculture” and biotechnology, aviation and logistics, automation and robotics, medical and wellness tourism, and other high-value services.

The most significant privileges offered by the BOI for promoted projects include: corporate income tax exemptions; tariff reductions or exemptions on imports of machinery used in the investment; tariff-free treatment on imported raw materials used in production for export.

  • corporate income tax exemptions; tariff reductions or exemptions on imports of machinery used in the investment; tariff-free treatment on imported raw materials used in production for export.
  • permission to own land; permission to bring foreign experts; and visa and work permit facilitation.

Investment projects with a significant R&D, innovation, or human resource development component may be eligible for additional grants and incentives. Moreover, grants are provided to support targeted technology development under the Competitive Enhancement Act. BOI offers a one-stop service to expedite multiple business processes for investors.

For additional information, contact the Office of Board of Investment on 555 Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road, Chatuchak, Bangkok 10900 and telephone at +662-553-8111 or website at www.boi.go.th.

Office of the Eastern Economic Corridor:

Thailand’s flagship investment zone, the “Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC),” spans the provinces of Chachoengsao, Chonburi, and Rayong (5,129 square miles). The EEC leverages the developed infrastructure networks of the adjacent Eastern Seaboard industrial area, Thailand’s primary investment destination for more than 30 years. The Thai government foresees the EEC as a primary investment and infrastructure hub in ASEAN and a gateway to east and south Asia. Among the EEC development projects are smart cities; an innovation district (EECi); a digital park (EECd); an aerotropolis (EEC-A); a medical hub (EECmd); and other state-of-the-art facilities. The EEC is targeting twelve key industries:

  • Next-generation automotive
  • Intelligent electronics
  • Advanced agriculture and biotechnology
  • Food processing
  • Tourism
  • Advance robotics and automation
  • Integrated aviation industry
  • Medical hub and total healthcare services
  • Biofuels and biochemicals
  • Digital technology
  • Defense industry
  • Human resource development

The EEC Act authorized investment incentives and privileges. Investors can obtain long-term land leases of 99 years (with an initial lease of up to 50 years and a renewal of up to 49 years). The EEC Act shortens the public-private partnership approval process to approximately nine months.

The BOI works in cooperation with the EEC Office. BOI offers corporate income tax exemptions of up to 13 years for strategic projects in the EEC area. Foreign executives and experts who work in targeted industries in the EEC are subject to a maximum personal income tax rate of 17 percent.

For additional information, contact the Eastern Economic Corridor Office at 25th floor, CAT Tower, 72 Soi Wat Maungkhae, Charoenkrung Road, Bangrak, Bangkok 10500, telephone at +662-033-8000 and website at: https://eng.eeco.or.th/en.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

The Industrial Estate Authority of Thailand (IEAT), a state-enterprise under the Ministry of Industry, develops suitable locations to accommodate industrial properties. IEAT has an established network of industrial estates in Thailand, including Laem Chabang Industrial Estate in Chonburi Province and Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate in Rayong Province in Thailand’s eastern seaboard region, a common location for foreign-owned factories due to its proximity to seaport facilities and Bangkok. Foreign-owned firms generally have the same investment opportunities in the industrial zones as Thai entities. While the IEAT Act requires that in the case of foreign-owned firms, the IEAT Committee must consider and approve the amount of space/land bought or leased in industrial estates, in practice, there is no record of disapproval for requested land. Private developers are heavily involved in the development of these estates.

The IEAT currently operates 14 estates, plus 45 more in conjunction with the private sector, in 16 provinces nationwide. Private-sector developers independently operate over 50 industrial estates, most of which have received promotion privileges from the Board of Investment. Amata Industrial Estate and WHA Industrial Development are Thailand’s leading private industrial estate developers. Most major foreign manufacturing investors, including U.S. manufacturers, are located in these two companies’ industrial estates and in the eastern seaboard region.

The IEAT has established 12 special IEAT “free trade zones” reserved for industries manufacturing exclusively for export. Businesses may import raw materials into, and export finished products from, these zones free of duty (including value added tax). These zones are located within industrial estates and many have customs facilities to speed processing. The free trade zones are located in Chonburi, Lampun, Pichit, Songkhla, Samut Prakarn, Bangkok (at Lad Krabang), Ayuddhya, and Chachoengsao. In addition to these zones, factory owners may apply for permission to establish a bonded warehouse within their premises to which raw materials, used exclusively in the production of products for export, may be imported duty-free.

The Thai government also established Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in ten provinces bordering neighboring countries: Tak, Nong Khai, Mukdahan, Sa Kaeo, Trad, Narathiwat, Chiang Rai, Nakhon Phanom, Songkhla, and Kanchanaburi. Business sectors and industries that can benefit from tax and non-tax incentives offered in the SEZs include logistics; warehouses near border areas; distribution; services; labor-intensive factories; and manufacturers using raw materials from neighboring countries. These SEZs support Thai government goals for closer economic ties with neighboring countries and allow investors to tap into abundant migrant labor; however, these SEZs have proven less attractive to overseas investors due to their remote locations far from Bangkok and other major cities.

In 2019, Thai Customs implemented three measures to improve trade and customs processing efficiency: Pre-Arrival Processing (PAP); an “e-Bill Payment” electronic payment system; and an e-Customs system that waives the use of paper customs declaration copies. The measures comply with the World Trade Organizations (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA), adopted in February 2016, which requires WTO members to adopt procedures for pre-arrival processing for imports and to authorize electronic submission of customs documents, where appropriate. The measures have also improved Thailand’s ranking in the World Bank’s “Doing Business: Trading Across Borders 2020” index.

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

The Thai government does not have specific laws or policies regarding performance or data localization requirements. Foreign investors are not required to use domestic content in goods or technology, but the Thai government has encouraged such an approach through domestic preferences in government procurement proceedings. In March 2021, Thailand announced the “Made in Thailand” initiative, which will direct government agencies to procure at least 60 percent of their goods from local producers.

There are currently no requirements for foreign IT providers to localize their data, turn over source code, or provide access to surveillance. However, the Thai government in 2019 passed new laws and regulations on cybersecurity and personal data protection that have raised concerns about Thai authorities’ broad power to potentially demand confidential and sensitive information. IT operators and analysts have expressed concern with private companies’ legal protections, ability to appeal, or ability to limit such access. IT providers have expressed concern that the new laws might place unreasonable burdens on them and have introduced new uncertainties in the technology sector. As of April 2021, the government is still in the process of considering and implementing regulations to enforce laws on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection. Thailand has implemented a requirement that all debit transactions processed by a domestic debit card network must use a proprietary chip.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

Property rights are guaranteed by the Constitution. While the government provides fair compensation in instances of expropriation, Thai policy generally does not permit foreigners to own land. There have been instances, however, of granting such permission to foreigners under certain laws or ministerial regulations for residential, business, or religious purposes. Foreign ownership of condominiums and buildings is permitted under certain laws. Foreigners can freely lease land. Relevant articles of the Civil and Commercial Codes do not distinguish between foreign and Thai nationals in the exercise of lease rights. Secured interests in property, such as mortgage and pledge, are recognized and enforced. Unoccupied property legally owned by foreigners or Thais may be subject to adverse possession by squatters who stay on that property for at least 10 years.

Intellectual Property Rights

Thailand remained on the Special 301 Watch List in 2020 although its single physical market listed in the Notorious Markets Report dropped off in 2020. USTR highlights Thailand’s absence of accession to major international IP treaties, the unauthorized activities of collective management organizations, online piracy from streaming devices and applications, the use of unauthorized software in the public and private sectors, and a continued backlog in pharmaceutical patent applications as the main challenges confronting the country’s protection of intellectual property rights.

The National Committee on Intellectual Property Policy sets Thailand’s overall Intellectual Property (IP) policy. The National Committee is chaired by the Prime Minister with two Deputy Prime Ministers as vice chairs while 18 heads of government agencies serve as committee members. In 2017, this Committee approved a 20-year IP Roadmap to reform the country’s IP system. The Department of Intellectual Property (DIP) is responsible for IP-related administration, including registration and recording of IP rights and coordination of IP enforcement activities. DIP also acts as the secretary of the National Committee on Intellectual Property Policy.

Thailand has a robust legal and enforcement regime for IP rights. Thailand is a member of the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). Thailand’s patent regime generally provides protection for most new inventions. The process of patent examination through issuance of patents is slow, taking on average six to eight years. The patenting process may take longer for certain technology sectors such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. Thailand protects trademarks, traditional marks, and sound marks. As a member of the “Protocol Relating to the Madrid Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Marks” (Madrid Protocol), Thailand allows trademark owners to apply for trademark registrations in Thailand directly at DIP or through international applications under the Madrid Protocol. DIP historically takes 10 to 14 months to register a trademark. As Thailand is a member of the “Berne Convention,” copyright works are protected automatically. However, copyright owners may record their works with DIP to establish proof of ownership. Thailand joined the Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled in January 2019. Thailand’s Geographical Indications (GI) Act has been in force since April 2004. Thailand protects GIs, which identify goods by their specific geographical origins. The geographical origins identified by a GI must be directly attributable to the reputation, qualities, or characteristics of the good. In Thailand, a registered trademark does not prevent a similar geographical name to be registered as a GI.

As of March 2021, Thailand remained in the process of amending its Patent Act to streamline the patent registration process, to reduce patent backlog and pendency, and to help prepare for accession to the Hague Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Industrial Designs. Furthermore, Thailand has increased the number of examiners to reduce the patent backlog. Thailand is also amending its Copyright Act to prepare for accession to the WIPO Internet Treaties. To address the use of unlicensed software in the public sector, Thailand adopted guidelines in November 2020 on the government acquisition of legitimate software. DIP recently adopted a new system of voluntary registration of copyright (collective management) agents to curb illegal activities of rogue agents. To register, an agent must meet certain qualifications and undergo prescribed training. The roster of registered agents along with associated licensed copyrights is available on the DIP website. Thailand also organized an MOU in January 2021 between internet platforms, DIP, and rightsholders, to streamline the process of removing IP-infringing and counterfeit goods from the country’s most popular online marketplaces.

Thailand maintains a database on seizures of counterfeit goods that is updated monthly (https://www.ipthailand.go.th/en/statistics). In 2020, the Royal Thai Police conducted 1,685 raids and seized 330,607 items, the Department of Special Investigation conducted four raids on trademark violations resulting in 512,621 items being seized, and the Customs Department had 1,541 seizures that stopped 52,517,596 IP-infringing items from entering Thailand.

Thailand’s Central Intellectual Property and International Trade Court (CIPIT) is the court of first instance that has the jurisdiction over both civil and criminal intellectual property cases and the appeals from DIP administrative decisions. The Court of Appeal for Specialized Cases hears appeals from the CIPIT.

For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local IP offices, please see the DIP website at https://www.ipthailand.go.th/en/ and WIPO’s country profiles at http://www.wipo.int/directory/en/.

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

The Thai government maintains a regulatory framework that broadly encourages and facilitates portfolio investment. The Stock Exchange of Thailand, the country’s national stock market, was established under the Securities Exchange of Thailand Act B.E. 2535 in 1992. There is sufficient liquidity in the markets to allow investors to enter and exit sizeable positions. Government policies generally do not restrict the free flow of financial resources to support product and factor markets. The Bank of Thailand, the country’s central bank, has respected IMF Article VIII by refraining from restrictions on payments and transfers for current international transactions.

Credit is generally allocated on market terms rather than by “direct lending.” Foreign investors are not restricted from borrowing on the local market. In theory, the private sector has access to a wide variety of credit instruments, ranging from fixed term lending to overdraft protection to bills of exchange and bonds. However, the private debt market is not well developed. Most corporate financing, whether for short-term working capital needs, trade financing, or project financing, requires borrowing from commercial banks or other financial institutions.

Money and Banking System

Thailand’s banking sector, with 15 domestic commercial banks, is sound and well-capitalized. As of December 2020, the non-performing loan rate was low (around 3.25 percent industry wide), and banks were well prepared to handle a forecast rise in the NPL rate in 2021 due to the pandemic. The ratio of capital funds/risk-weighted assets (capital adequacy) was high (20.1 percent). Thailand’s largest commercial bank is Bangkok Bank, with assets totaling USD 100 billion as of December 2020. The combined assets of the five largest commercial banks totaled USD 492.6 billion, or 70.82 percent of the total assets of the Thai banking system, at the end of 2020.

In general, Thai commercial banks provide the following services: accepting deposits from the public; granting credit; buying and selling foreign currencies; and buying and selling bills of exchange (including discounting or re-discounting, accepting, and guaranteeing bills of exchange). Commercial banks also provide credit guarantees, payment, remittance and financial instruments for risk management. Such instruments include interest-rate derivatives and foreign-exchange derivatives. Additional business to support capital market development, such as debt and equity instruments, is allowed. A commercial bank may also provide other services, such as bank assurance and e-banking.

Thailand’s central bank is the Bank of Thailand (BOT), which is headed by a Governor appointed for a five-year term. The BOT serves the following functions: prints and issues banknotes and other security documents; promotes monetary stability and formulates monetary policies; manages the BOT’s assets; provides banking facilities to the government; acts as the registrar of government bonds; provides banking facilities for financial institutions; establishes or supports the payment system; supervises financial institutions manages the country’s foreign exchange rate under the foreign exchange system; and determines the makeup of assets in the foreign exchange reserve.

Apart from the 15 domestic commercial banks, there are currently 11 registered foreign bank branches, including three American banks (Citibank, Bank of America, and JP Morgan Chase), and four foreign bank subsidiaries operating in Thailand. To set up a bank branch or a subsidiary in Thailand, a foreign commercial bank must obtain approval from the Ministry of Finance and the BOT. Foreign commercial bank branches are limited to three service points (branches/ATMs) and foreign commercial bank subsidiaries are limited to 40 service points (branches and off-premise ATMs) per subsidiary. Newly established foreign bank branches are required to have minimum capital funds of 125 million baht (USD 3.99 million at 2020 average exchange rates) invested in government or state enterprise securities, or directly deposited with the Bank of Thailand. The number of expatriate management personnel is limited to six people at full branches, although Thai authorities frequently grant exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

Non-residents can open and maintain foreign currency accounts without deposit and withdrawal ceilings. Non-residents can also open and maintain Thai baht accounts; however, in an effort to curb the strong baht, the Bank of Thailand capped non-resident Thai deposits to 200 million baht across all domestic bank accounts. However, in January 2021, the Bank of Thailand began allowing non-resident companies greater flexibility to conduct baht transactions with domestic financial institutions under the non-resident qualified company scheme. Participating non-financial firms which trade and invest directly in Thailand are allowed to manage currency risks related to the baht without having to provide proof of underlying baht holdings for each transaction. This will allow firms to manage baht liquidity more flexibly without being subject to the end-of-day outstanding limit of 200 million baht for non-resident accounts. Withdrawals are freely permitted. Since mid-2017, the BOT has allowed commercial banks and payment service providers to introduce new financial services technologies under its “Regulatory Sandbox” guidelines. Recently introduced technologies under this scheme include standardized QR codes for payments, blockchain funds transfers, electronic letters of guarantee, and biometrics.

Thailand’s alternative financial services include cooperatives, micro-saving groups, the state village funds, and informal money lenders. The latter provide basic but expensive financial services to households, mostly in rural areas. These alternative financial services, with the exception of informal money lenders, are regulated by the government.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

There are no limitations placed on foreign investors for converting, transferring, or repatriating funds associated with an investment; however, supporting documentation is required. Any person who brings Thai baht currency or foreign currency in or out of Thailand in an aggregate amount exceeding USD 15,000 or the equivalent must declare the currency at a Customs checkpoint. Investment funds are allowed to be freely converted into any currency.

The exchange rate is generally determined by market fundamentals but is carefully scrutinized by the BOT under a managed float system. During periods of excessive capital inflows/outflows (i.e., exchange rate speculation), the central bank has stepped in to prevent extreme movements in the currency and to reduce the duration and extent of the exchange rate’s deviation from a targeted equilibrium.

Remittance Policies

Thailand imposes no limitations on the inflow or outflow of funds for remittances of profits or revenue for direct and portfolio investments. There are no time limitations on remittances.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Thailand does not have a sovereign wealth fund and the Bank of Thailand is not pursuing the creation of such a fund. However, the International Monetary Fund has urged Thailand to create a sovereign wealth fund due to its large accumulated foreign exchange reserves. As of December 2020, Thailand had the world’s 13th largest foreign exchange reserves at USD 258.1 billion.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

Thailand’s 52 state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have total assets of USD 523.5 billion and a combined gross income of USD 159.3 billion (end of 2019 figures, latest available). In 2020, they employed 249,400 people, or 0.65 percent of the Thai labor force. Thailand’s SOEs operate primarily in-service delivery, in particular in the energy, telecommunications, transportation, and financial sectors. More information about SOEs is available at the website of the State Enterprise Policy Office (SEPO) under the Ministry of Finance at www.sepo.go.th .

A 15-member State Enterprises Policy Commission, or “superboard,” oversees operations of the country’s 52 SOEs. In May 2019, the Development of Supervision and Management of State-Owned Enterprise Act B.E. 2562 (2019) went into effect. The law aims to reform SOEs and ensure transparent management decisions. The Thai government generally defines SOEs as special agencies established by law for a particular purpose that are 100 percent owned by the government (through the Ministry of Finance as a primary shareholder). The government recognizes a second category of “limited liability companies/public companies” in which the government owns 50 percent or more of the shares. Of the 52 total SOEs, 42 are wholly owned and 10 are majority-owned. Three are publicly listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand: Airports of Thailand Public Company Limited, PTT Public Company Limited, and MCOT Public Company Limited. By regulation, at least one-third of SOE boards must be comprised of independent directors.

Private enterprises can compete with SOEs under the same terms and conditions with respect to market share, products/services, and incentives in most sectors, but there are some exceptions, such as fixed-line operations in the telecommunications sector.

While SEPO officials aspire to adhere to the OECD Guidelines on Corporate Governance for SOEs no level playing field exists between SOEs and private sector enterprises, which are often disadvantaged in competing with Thai SOEs for contracts.

Generally, SOE senior management reports directly to a line minister and to SEPO. Corporate board seats are typically allocated to senior government officials or politically affiliated individuals.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

The Thai government has committed to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP). Thailand has two national plans for responsible business conduct. The 4th National Human Rights Plan (2019-2022) sets a framework on human rights for government agencies, the private sector, and civil society to reduce the incidence of human rights violations.

In October 2019 Thailand’s Cabinet adopted the country’s first National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights (NAP on BHR), based on UNGP. The NAP aims to prevent adverse effects of business operations on human rights. The plan identifies four priority areas: 1) labor; 2) community, land, natural resources, and environment; 3) human rights defenders; and 4) cross border investment and multinational enterprises. The Department of Rights and Liberties Protection at the Ministry of Justice is the lead agency. The Global Compact Network of Thailand opened a Business and Human Right Academy in 2020 to raise awareness in the private sector.

There are several local NGOs that promote and monitor responsible business conduct. Most such NGOs operate without hindrance, though a few have experienced intimidation as a result of their work. International NGOs continue to call on the Thai government and Thai companies to act more responsibly with respect to human and labor rights.

Thailand has not ratified the Montreux Document on Private Military and Service Companies.

In March 2020 the Thai Labor Minister signed an MOU with 13 private industry associations for prevention and elimination of child labor and forced labor in sectors including shrimp-farming, sugarcane, fisheries, and garments – all sectors identified as high risk in the U.S. Department of Labor’s TDA report.

Additional Resources 

Department of State

Department of Labor

9. Corruption

Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Thailand 104th out of 180 countries with a score of 36 out of 100 in 2020 (zero is highly corrupt). According to some studies, bribery and corruption are still problematic. Despite increased usage of electronic systems, government officers still wield discretion in the granting of licenses and other government approvals, which creates opportunities for corruption. U.S. executives with experience in Thailand often advise new-to-market companies that it is far easier to avoid corrupt transactions from the beginning than to stop such practices once a company has been identified as willing to operate in this fashion. American firms that comply with the strict guidelines of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) are able to compete successfully in Thailand. U.S. businesses say that publicly affirming the need to comply with the FCPA helps to shield their companies from pressure to pay bribes.

Thailand has a legal framework and a range of institutions to counter corruption. The Organic Law to Counter Corruption criminalizes corrupt practices of public officials and corporations, including active and passive bribery of public officials. The anti-corruption laws extend to family members of officials and to political parties.

Thai procurement regulations prohibit collusion amongst bidders. If an examination confirms allegations or suspicions of collusion among bidders, the names of those applicants must be removed from the list of competitors.

Thailand adopted its first national government procurement law in December 2016. Based on UNCITRAL model laws and the WTO Agreement on Government Procurement, the law applies to all government agencies, local authorities, and state-owned enterprises, and aims to improve transparency. Officials who violate the law are subject to 1-10 years imprisonment and/or a fine from Thai baht 20,000 (approximately USD 615) to Thai baht 200,000 (approximately USD 6,150).

Since 2010, the Thai Institute of Directors has built an anti-corruption coalition of Thailand’s largest businesses. Coalition members sign a Collective Action Against Corruption Declaration and pledge to take tangible, measurable steps to reduce corruption-related risks identified by third party certification. The Center for International Private Enterprise equipped the Thai Institute of Directors and its coalition partners with an array of tools for training and collective action.

Established in 2011, the Anti-Corruption Organization of Thailand (ACT) aims to encourage the government to create laws to combat corruption. ACT has 54 member organizations drawn from the private, public, and academic sectors. Their signature program is the “Integrity Pact,” run in cooperation with the Comptroller General Department of the Ministry of Finance, and based on a tool promoted by Transparency International. The program forbids bribes from signatory members in bidding for government contacts and assigns independent ACT observers to monitor public infrastructure projects for signs of collusion. Member agencies and companies must adhere to strict transparency rules by disclosing and making easily available to the public all relevant bidding information, such as the terms of reference and the cost of the project.

Thailand is a party to the UN Anti-Corruption Convention, but not the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention. Thailand’s Witness Protection Act offers protection (to include police protection) to witnesses, including NGO employees, who are eligible for special protection measures in anti-corruption cases.

Resources to Report Corruption

International Affairs Strategy Specialist
Office of the National Anti-Corruption Commission
361 Nonthaburi Road, Thasaai District, Amphur Muang Nonthaburi 11000, Thailand
Tel: +662-528-4800
Email:  TACC@nacc.go.th 

Dr. Mana Nimitmongkol
Secretary General
Anti-Corruption Organization of Thailand (ACT)
44 Srijulsup Tower, 16th floor, Phatumwan, Bangkok 10330
Tel: +662-613-8863
Email:  mana2020@yahoo.com

10. Political and Security Environment

Periodic street protests against the government occurred throughout 2020, though they were generally peaceful and did not result in property damage.

Violence related to an ongoing ethno-nationalist insurgency in Thailand’s southernmost provinces has claimed more than 7,000 lives since 2004. Although the number of deaths and violent incidents has decreased year-over-year, efforts to end the insurgency have so far been unsuccessful. The government is currently engaged in preliminary talks with the leading insurgent group. Almost all attacks have occurred in the three southernmost provinces of the country.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

In 2020, 39.45 million people were in Thailand’s formal labor pool, comprising 59.6 percent of the total population. Thailand’s official unemployment rates stood at 1.5 percent at the end of 2020, significantly more than 1.0 percent the previous year. Unemployment among youth (15-24 years old) is around 5.4 percent, while the rate is only 1.1 percent for adults over 25 years old. Well over half the labor force (53.7 percent) earns income in the informal sector, including through self-employment and family labor, which limits their access to social welfare programs. The National Statistical Office show COVID-19 negatively affected the labor force’s working hours; many people although still employed, work less hours and receive less pay.

The Thai government is actively seeking to address shortages of both skilled and unskilled workers through education reform and various worker-training incentive programs. Low birth rates, an aging population, and a skills mismatch, are exacerbating labor shortages in many sectors. Despite provision of 15 years of free universal education, Thailand continues to suffer from a skills mismatch that impedes innovation and economic growth. Thailand has a shortage of high-skill workers such as researchers, engineers, and managers, as well as technicians and vocational workers.

Regional income inequality and labor shortages, particularly in labor-intensive manufacturing, construction, hospitality, and service sectors, have attracted millions of migrant workers, mostly from neighboring Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. In 2019, the International Organization for Migration estimated Thailand hosted 4.9 million migrant workers, or 10 percent of country’s labor force. Nearly 200,000 workers returned to their home countries due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although an increasing number of migrant laborers are documented, many continue to work illegally. At the end of 2020, approximately 2.5 million migrant workers had registered with the Ministry of Labor.

Employers may dismiss workers provided the employer pays severance. Where an employer temporarily suspends business, in part or in whole, the employer must pay the employee at least 75 percent of his or her daily wages throughout the suspension period.

Among wage and salary workers, 3.4 percent are unionized and only 34 out of 77 provinces have labor unions. Thai law allows private-sector workers to form and join trade unions of their choosing without prior authorization, to bargain collectively, and to conduct legal strikes, although these rights come with some restrictions. Noncitizen migrant workers, whether registered or undocumented, do not have the right to form unions or serve as union officials. Migrants can join unions organized and led by Thai citizens.

In 2020, the Department of Labor Protection and Welfare issued a ministerial regulation on occupational safety, health and working environment for diving work; the regulation sets a minimum age of 18. The Department is in the process of drafting a regulation on fishery worker protection. Additional information on migrant workers issues and rights can be found in the U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report, as well as the Labor Rights chapter of the U.S. Human Rights report.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy
Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International
Source of Data: BEA; IMF;
Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ($M USD) 2019 $543,478 2019 $543,549 www.worldbank.org/en/country 
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international
Source of data: BEA; IMF;
Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 $18,345 2019 $17,738 BEA data available at
https://apps.bea.gov/
international/factsheet/ 
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) 2019 $8,015 2019 $1,904 BEA data available at
https://www.bea.gov/international/
direct-investment-and-multinational-
enterprises-comprehensive-data 
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 2019 50.2% 2019 46.8% UNCTAD data available at https://stats.unctad.org/
handbook/Economic
Trends/Fdi.html
 

* Source for Host Country Data: Bank of Thailand (http://bot.or.th/)

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI
Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward $259,830 100% Total Outward $134,022 100%
Japan $89,682 34.5% China, P.R.: Hong Kong $25,059 18.7%
Singapore $41,464 16.0% Singapore $13,486 10.1%
China, P.R.: Hong Kong $22,669 8.7% The Netherlands $10,481 7.8%
United States $17,232 6.6% Vietnam $7,693 5.7%
The Netherlands $14,298 5.5% Mauritius $7,553 5.6%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.
Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment
Portfolio Investment Assets
Top Five Partners (Millions, current US Dollars)
Total Equity Securities Total Debt Securities
All Countries $662319 100% All Countries $37625 100% All Countries $28606 100%
United States $9,423 14% Luxembourg $7,473 19% China, P.R. Mainland $6565 23%
Luxembourg $7951 12% United States $7,209 19% Japan $3,072 11%
Singapore $4429 7% Singapore $3723 10% Laos 2452 9%
Ireland $4,063 6% Ireland $4,000 10% United States

UAE

$2214 8%
Japan $3387 5% China, P.R.: Hong Kong $1,202 3% UAE $2,026 7%

14. Contact for More Information

U.S. Embassy Bangkok
Economic Section
BangkokEconSection@state.gov 

Vietnam

Executive Summary

Vietnam continues to welcome foreign direct investment (FDI), and the government has policies in place that are broadly conducive to U.S. investment. Factors that attract foreign investment include recently-signed free trade agreements, political stability, ongoing economic reforms, a young and increasingly urbanized population, and competitive labor costs. Vietnam has received USD 231 billion in FDI from 1988 through 2020, per the Ministry of Public Affairs (MPI), which oversees foreign investments.

Vietnam’s exceptional handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has included proactive management of health policy, fiscal stimulus, and monetary policy, combined with supply chain shifts, contributed to Vietnam receiving USD 19.9 billion in FDI in 2020 – almost as much as the USD 20.3 billion received in 2019. Of the 2020 investments, 48 percent went into manufacturing – especially in the electronics, textiles, footwear, and automobile parts industries; 18 percent in utilities and energy; 15 percent in real estate; and smaller percentages in assorted industries. The government approved the following significant FDI projects in 2020: Delta Offshore’s USD 4 billion investment in the Bac Lieu liquified natural gas (LNG) power plant; Siam Cement Group’s (SCG) USD 1.8 billion investment in the Long Son Integrated Petrochemicals Complex; a Daewoo-led, South Korean consortium’s USD 774 million investment in the West Lake Capital Township real estate development in Hanoi; and Taiwan-based Pegatron’s USD 481 million investment in electronics production.

Vietnam recently moved forward on free trade agreements that will likely make it easier to attract future FDI by providing better market access for Vietnamese exports and encouraging investor-friendly reforms. The EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) came into force August 1, 2020. Vietnam signed the UK-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement on December 31, 2020, which will come into effect May 1, 2021. On November 15, 2020, Vietnam signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). While these agreements lower certain trade and investment barriers for companies from participating countries, U.S. companies may find it more difficult to compete without similar advantages.

In February 2021, the 13th Party Congress of the Communist Party approved a ten-year economic strategy that calls for shifting foreign investments to high-tech industries and ensuring those investments include provisions relating to environmental protection. On January 1, 2021, Vietnam’s Securities Law and new Labor Code Law, which the National Assembly originally approved in 2019, came into force. The Securities Law formally states the government’s intention to remove foreign ownership limits for investments in most industries, and the new Labor Code provides more contract flexibility – including provisions that make it easier for an employer to dismiss an employee and allow workers to join independent trade unions – although no such independent trade unions yet exist in Vietnam. On June 17, 2020, Vietnam passed a revised Investment Law and a new Public Private Partnership Law, both designed to encourage foreign investment into large infrastructure projects, reduce the burden on the government to finance such projects, and increase linkages between foreign investors and the Vietnamese private sector.

Despite a comparatively high level of FDI inflow as a percentage of GDP – 7.3 percent in 2020 – significant challenges remain in Vietnam’s investment climate. These include corruption, weak legal infrastructure, poor enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPR), a shortage of skilled labor, restrictive labor practices, and the government’s slow decision-making process.

Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 104 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview 
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 70 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings 
Global Innovation Index 2020 42 of 131 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator 
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2019 USD 2,615 https://apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/ 
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 USD 2,590 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD 
Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Toward Foreign Direct Investment

Since Vietnam embarked on economic reforms in 1986 to transition to a market-based economy, the government has welcomed FDI, recognizing it as a key component of Vietnam’s high rate of economic growth over the last two decades. Foreign investments continue to play a crucial role in the economy: according to Vietnam’s General Statistics Office (GSO), Vietnam exported USD 281 billion in goods in 2020, of which 72 percent came from projects utilizing FDI.

The Politburo issued Resolution 55 in 2019 to increase Vietnam’s attractiveness to foreign investment. This Resolution aims to attract USD 50 billion in new foreign investment by 2030. In 2020, the government revised laws on investment and enterprise, in addition to passing the Public Private Partnership Law, to further the goals of this Resolution. The revisions encourage high-quality investments, use and development of advanced technologies, and environmental protection mechanisms.

While Vietnam’s revised Investment Law says the government must treat foreign and domestic investors equally, foreign investors have complained about having to cross extra hurdles to get ordinary government approvals. The government continues to have foreign ownership limits (FOLs) in industries Vietnam considers important to national security. In January 2020, the government removed FOLs on companies in the eWallet sector and reformed electronic payments procedures for foreign firms. Some U.S. investors report that these changes have provided more regulatory certainty, which has, in turn, instilled greater confidence as they consider long-term investments in Vietnam.U.S. investors continue to cite concerns about confusing tax regulations and retroactive changes to laws – including tax rates, tax policies, and preferential treatment of state-owned enterprises (SOEs). In 2020, members of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Hanoi noted that fair, transparent, stable, and effective legal frameworks would help Vietnam better attract U.S. investment.

The Ministry of Planning and Investment (MPI) is the country’s national agency charged with promoting and facilitating foreign investment; most provinces and cities also have local equivalents. MPI and local investment promotion offices provide information and explain regulations and policies to foreign investors. They also inform the Prime Minister and National Assembly on trends in foreign investment. However, U.S. investors should still consult lawyers and/or other experts regarding issues on regulations that are unclear.

The Prime Minister, along with other senior leaders, has stated that Vietnam prioritizes both investment retention and ongoing dialogue with foreign investors. Vietnam’s senior leaders often meet with foreign governments and private-sector representatives to emphasize Vietnam’s attractiveness as an FDI destination. The semiannual Vietnam Business Forum includes meetings between foreign investors and Vietnamese government officials; the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council (USABC), AmCham, and other U.S. associations also host multiple yearly missions for their U.S. company members, which allow direct engagement with senior government officials. Foreign investors in Vietnam have reported that these meetings and dialogues have helped address obstacles.

Limits on Foreign Control and Right to Private Ownership and Establishment

Both foreign and domestic private entities have the right to establish and own business enterprises in Vietnam and engage in most forms of legal remunerative activity in non-regulated sectors.

Vietnam has some statutory restrictions on foreign investment, including FOLs or requirements for joint partnerships, projects in banking, network infrastructure services, non-infrastructure telecommunication services, transportation, energy, and defense. By law, the Prime Minister can waive these FOLs on a case-by-case basis. In practice, however, when the government has removed or eased FOLs, it has done so for the whole industry sector rather than for a specific investment.

MPI plays a key role with respect to investment screening. All FDI projects require approval by the provincial People’s Committee in which the project would be located. By law, large-scale FDI projects must also obtain the approval of the National Assembly before investment can proceed. MPI’s approval process includes an assessment of the investor’s legal status and financial strength; the project’s compatibility with the government’s long- and short-term goals for economic development and government revenue; the investor’s technological expertise; environmental protection; and plans for land use and land clearance compensation, if applicable. The government can, and sometimes does, stop certain foreign investments if it deems the investment harmful to Vietnam’s national security.

The following FDI projects also require the Prime Minister’s approval: airports; grade 1 seaports (seaports the government classifies as strategic); casinos; oil and gas exploration, production, and refining; telecommunications/network infrastructure; forestry projects; publishing; and projects that need approval from more than one province. In the period between this year’s Investment Climate Statement and last year’s, the government removed the requirement that the Prime Minister needs to approve investments over USD 271 million or investments in the tobacco industry.

Other Investment Policy Reviews

Recent third-party investment policy reviews include the World Bank’s Review from 2020: https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/33598 

https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/33598 

And OECD’s 2018 Review: https://www.oecd.org/countries/vietnam/oecd-investment-policy-reviews-viet-nam-2017-9789264282957-en.htm 

https://www.oecd.org/countries/vietnam/oecd-investment-policy-reviews-viet-nam-2017-9789264282957-en.htm 

UNCTAD released a report in 2009: https://unctad.org/webflyer/investment-policy-review-viet-nam 

https://unctad.org/webflyer/investment-policy-review-viet-nam 

Business Facilitation

The World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Index ranked Vietnam 70 of 190 economies. The World Bank reported that in some factors Vietnam lags behind other Southeast Asian countries. For example, it takes businesses 384 hours to pay taxes in Vietnam compared with 64 in Singapore, 174 in Malaysia, and 191 in Indonesia.

In May 2021, USAID and the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) released the Provincial Competitiveness Index (PCI) 2020 Report, which examined trends in economic governance: http://eng.pcivietnam.org/ . This annual report provides an independent, unbiased view on the provincial business environment by surveying over 8,500 domestic private firms on a variety of business issues. Overall, Vietnam’s median PCI score improved, reflecting the government’s efforts to improve economic governance and the quality of infrastructure, as well as a decline in the prevalence of corruption (bribes).

Outward Investment

The government does not have a clear mechanism to promote or incentivize outward investment, nor does it have regulations restricting domestic investors from investing abroad. Vietnam does not release periodical statistics on outward investment, but reported that by the end of 2019 total outward FDI investment from Vietnam was USD 21 billion in more than 1,300 projects in 78 countries. Laos received the most outward FDI, with USD 5 billion, followed by Russia and Cambodia with USD 2.8 billion and USD 2.7 billion, respectively. SOEs like PetroVietnam, Viettel, and SOCB are Vietnam’s largest sources of outward FDI, and have invested more than USD 13 billion in outward FDI, per media reports.

3. Legal Regime

Transparency of the Regulatory System

U.S. companies continue to report that they face frequent and significant challenges with inconsistent regulatory interpretation, irregular enforcement, and an unclear legal framework. AmCham members have consistently voiced concerns that Vietnam lacks a fair legal system for investments, which affects U.S. companies’ ability to do business in Vietnam. The 2020 PCI report documented companies’ difficulties dealing with land, taxes, and social insurance issues, but also found improvements in procedures related to business administration and anti-corruption.

Accounting systems are inconsistent with international norms, and this increases transaction costs for investors. The government had previously said it intended to have most companies transition to International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) by 2020. Unable to meet this target, the Ministry of Finance in March 2020 extended the deadline to 2025.

In Vietnam, the National Assembly passes laws, which serve as the highest form of legal direction, but often lack specifics. Ministries provide draft laws to the National Assembly. The Prime Minister issues decrees, which provide guidance on implementation. Individual ministries issue circulars, which provide guidance on how a ministry will administer a law or decree.

After implementing ministries have cleared a particular law to send the law to the National Assembly, the government posts the law for a 60-day comment period. However, in practice, the public comment period is sometimes truncated. Foreign governments, NGOs, and private-sector companies can, and do, comment during this period, after which the ministry may redraft the law. Upon completion of the revisions, the ministry submits the legislation to the Office of the Government (OOG) for approval, including the Prime Minister’s signature, and the legislation moves to the National Assembly for committee review. During this process, the National Assembly can send the legislation back to the originating ministry for further changes. The Communist Party of Vietnam’s Politburo reserves the right to review special or controversial laws.

In practice, drafting ministries often lack the resources needed to conduct adequate data-driven assessments. Ministries are supposed to conduct policy impact assessments that holistically consider all factors before drafting a law, but the quality of these assessments varies.

The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) is in charge of ensuring that government ministries and agencies follow administrative procedures. The MOJ has a Regulatory Management Department, which oversees and reviews legal documents after they are issued to ensure compliance with the legal system. The Law on the Promulgation of Legal Normative Documents requires all legal documents and agreements to be published online and open for comments for 60 days, and to be published in the Official Gazette before implementation.

Business associations and various chambers of commerce regularly comment on draft laws and regulations. However, when issuing more detailed implementing guidelines, government entities sometimes issue circulars with little advance warning and without public notification, resulting in little opportunity for comment by affected parties. In several cases, authorities allowed comments for the first draft only and did not provide subsequent draft versions to the public. The centralized location where key regulatory actions are published can be found here:   http://vbpl.vn/  .

While general information is publicly available, Vietnam’s public finances and debt obligations (including explicit and contingent liabilities) are not transparent. The National Assembly set a statutory limit for public debt at 65 percent of nominal GDP, and, according to official figures, Vietnam’s public debt to GDP ratio in late 2020 was 55.3 percent – down from 56 percent the previous year. However, the official public-debt figures exclude the debt of certain large SOEs. This poses a risk to Vietnam’s public finances, as the government is liable for the debts of these companies. Vietnam could improve its fiscal transparency by making its executive budget proposal, including budgetary and debt expenses, widely and easily accessible to the general public long before the National Assembly enacts the budget, ensuring greater transparency of off-budget accounts, and by publicizing the criteria by which the government awards contracts and licenses for natural resource extraction.

International Regulatory Considerations

Vietnam is a member of ASEAN, a 10-member regional organization working to advance economic integration through cooperation in economic, social, cultural, technical, scientific and administrative fields. Within ASEAN, the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) has the goal of establishing a single market across ASEAN nations (similar to the EU’s common market), but member states have not made significant progress. To date, AEC’s greatest success has been in reducing tariffs on most products traded within the bloc.

Vietnam is also a member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), an inter-governmental forum for 21 member economies in the Pacific Rim that promotes free trade throughout the Asia-Pacific region. APEC aims to facilitate business among member states through trade facilitation programming, senior-level leaders’ meetings, and regular dialogue. However, APEC is a non-binding forum. ASEAN and APEC membership has not resulted in Vietnam incorporating international standards, especially when compared with the EU or North America.

Vietnam is a party to the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) and has been implementing the TFA’s Category A provisions. Vietnam submitted its Category B and Category C implementation timelines on August 2, 2018. According to these timelines, Vietnam will fully implement the Category B and C provisions by the end of 2023 and 2024, respectively.

Legal System and Judicial Independence

Vietnam’s legal system mixes indigenous, French, and Soviet-inspired civil legal traditions. Vietnam generally follows an operational understanding of the rule of law that is consistent with its top-down, one-party political structure and traditionally inquisitorial judicial system.

The hierarchy of the country’s courts is: 1) the Supreme People’s Court; 2) the High People’s Court; 3) Provincial People’s Courts; 4) District People’s Courts, and 5) Military Courts. The People’s Courts operate in five divisions: criminal, civil, administrative, economic, and labor. The Supreme People’s Procuracy is responsible for prosecuting criminal activities as well as supervising judicial activities.

Vietnam lacks an independent judiciary and separation of powers among Vietnam’s branches of government. For example, Vietnam’s Chief Justice is also a member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. According to Transparency International, there is significant risk of corruption in judicial rulings. Low judicial salaries engender corruption; nearly one-fifth of surveyed Vietnamese households that have been to court declared that they had paid bribes at least once. Many businesses therefore avoid Vietnamese courts as much as possible.

The judicial system continues to face additional problems: for example, many judges and arbitrators lack adequate legal training and are appointed through personal or political contacts with party leaders or based on their political views. Regulations or enforcement actions are appealable, and appeals are adjudicated in the national court system. Through a separate legal mechanism, individuals and companies can file complaints against enforcement actions under the Law on Complaints.

The 2005 Commercial Law regulates commercial contracts between businesses. Specific regulations prescribe specific forms of contracts, depending on the nature of the deals. If a contract does not contain a dispute-resolution clause, courts will have jurisdiction over a dispute. Vietnamese law allows dispute-resolution clauses in commercial contracts explicitly through the Law on Commercial Arbitration. The law follows the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) model law as an international standard for procedural rules.

Vietnamese courts will only consider recognition of civil judgments issued by courts in countries that have entered into agreements on recognition of judgments with Vietnam or on a reciprocal basis. However, with the exception of France, these treaties only cover non-commercial judgments.

Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment

The legal system includes provisions to promote foreign investment. Vietnam uses a “negative list” approach to approve foreign investment, meaning foreign businesses are allowed to operate in all areas except for six prohibited sectors – from which domestic businesses are also prohibited. These include illicit drugs, wildlife trade, prostitution, human trafficking, human cloning, and debt collection services.

The law also requires that foreign and domestic investors be treated equally in cases of nationalization and confiscation. However, foreign investors are subject to different business-licensing processes and restrictions, and companies registered in Vietnam that have majority foreign ownership are subject to foreign-investor business-license procedures.

The new Labor Code, which came into effect January 1, 2021, provides greater flexibility in contract termination, allows employees to work more overtime hours, increases the retirement age, and adds flexibility in labor contracts.

The Investment Law, revised in June 2020, stipulated Vietnam would encourage FDI, through incentives, in university education, pollution mitigation, and certain medical research. Public Private Partnership Law, passed in June 2020 lists transportation, electricity grid and power plants, irrigation, water supply and treatment, waste treatment, health care, education and IT infrastructure as prioritized sectors for FDI and private public partnerships.

Vietnam has a “one-stop-shop” website for investment that provides relevant laws, rules, procedures, and reporting requirements for investors:  https://vietnam.eregulations.org/  

Competition and Antitrust Laws

In 2018, Vietnam passed a new Law on Competition, which came into effect on July 1, 2019, replacing Vietnam’s Law on Competition of 2004. The Law includes punishments – such as fines – for those who violate the law. The government has not prosecuted any person or entity under this law since it came into effect, though there were prosecutions under the old law in the early 2000s. The law does not appear to have affected foreign investment. On March 24, 2020, Decree 35, the second decree to implement the Law on Competition, came into effect. Decree 35 addresses issues on anti-competitive agreements, abuse of dominance, and merger control. For merger control, the decree replaces the single market share threshold for when parties must notify a merger with an approach that puts forward four alternative benchmarks based on the value of assets, transaction value, revenue, and market share. The decree also provides details on merger filing assessment.

Expropriation and Compensation

Under the law, the government of Vietnam can only expropriate investors’ property in cases of emergency, disaster, defense, or national interest, and the government is required to compensate investors if it expropriates property. Under the U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement, Vietnam must apply international standards of treatment in any case of expropriation or nationalization of U.S. investor assets, which includes acting in a non-discriminatory manner with due process of law and with prompt, adequate, and effective compensation. The U.S. Mission in Vietnam is unaware of any current expropriation cases involving U.S. firms.

Dispute Settlement

ICSID Convention and New York Convention

Vietnam has not acceded to the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) Convention but is a member of UN Commission on International Trade Laws for the period 2019-2025. MPI has submitted a proposal to the government to join the ICSID, but the government has not moved forward on it. Vietnam is a party to the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (the “New York Convention”), meaning that Vietnam courts should recognize foreign arbitral awards rendered by a recognized international arbitration institution without a review of cases’ merits.

Investor-State Dispute Settlement

Vietnam has signed 67 bilateral investment treaties, is party to 26 treaties with investment provisions, and is a member of 15 free trade agreements in force. Some of these include provisions for Investor-State Dispute Settlement. As a signatory to the New York Convention, Vietnam is required to recognize and enforce foreign arbitral awards within its jurisdiction, with few exceptions. Technically, foreign and domestic arbitral awards are legally enforceable in Vietnam; however, foreign investors in Vietnam generally prefer international arbitration for predictability. Vietnam courts may reject foreign arbitral awards if the award is contrary to the basic principles of domestic laws. The new Investment law provides that only Vietnam arbitration and courts can solve disputes between investors and government authorities, while investors can select foreign or mutually agreed arbitrations to solve their disputes.

According to UNCTAD, over the last 10 years, there were two dispute cases against the Vietnamese government involving U.S. companies.  The courts decided in favor of the government in one case, and the parties decided to discontinue the other.  The government is currently in two pending, active disputes (with the UK and South Korea). More details are available at  https://investmentpolicy.unctad.org/investment-dispute-settlement/country/229/viet-nam.

International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts

With an underdeveloped legal system, Vietnam’s courts are often ineffective in settling commercial disputes. Negotiation between concerned parties or arbitration are the most common means of dispute resolution. Since the Law on Arbitration does not allow a foreign investor to refer an investment dispute to a court in a foreign jurisdiction, Vietnamese judges cannot apply foreign laws to a case before them, and foreign lawyers cannot represent plaintiffs in a court of law. The Law on Commercial Arbitration of 2010 permits foreign arbitration centers to establish branches or representative offices (although none have done so).

There are no readily available statistics on how often domestic courts rule in favor of SOEs. In general, the court system in Vietnam works slowly. International arbitration awards, when enforced, may take years from original judgment to payment. Many foreign companies, due to concerns related to time, costs, and potential for bribery, have reported that they have turned to international arbitration or have asked influential individuals to weigh in.

Bankruptcy Regulations

Under the 2014 Bankruptcy Law, bankruptcy is not criminalized unless it relates to another crime. The law defines insolvency as a condition in which an enterprise is more than three months overdue in meeting its payment obligations. The law also provides provisions allowing creditors to commence bankruptcy proceedings against an enterprise and procedures for credit institutions to file for bankruptcy. According to the World Bank’s 2020 Ease of Doing Business Report, Vietnam ranked 122 out of 190 for resolving insolvency. The report noted that it still takes, on average, five years to conclude a bankruptcy case in Vietnam. The Credit Information Center of the State Bank of Vietnam provides credit information services for foreign investors concerned about the potential for bankruptcy with a Vietnamese partner.

4. Industrial Policies

Investment Incentives

Foreign investors are exempt from import duties on goods imported for their own use that cannot be procured locally, including machinery; vehicles; components and spare parts for machinery and equipment; raw materials; inputs for manufacturing; and construction materials. Remote and mountainous provinces and special industrial zones are allowed to provide additional tax breaks and other incentives to prospective investors.

Investment incentives, including lower corporate income tax rates, exemption of some import tariffs, or favorable land rental rates, are available in the following sectors: advanced technology; research and development; new materials; energy; clean energy; renewable energy; energy saving products; automobiles; software; waste treatment and management; and primary or vocational education.

The government rarely issues guarantees for financing FDI projects; when it does so, it is usually because the project links to a national security priority. Joint financing with the government occurs when a foreign entity partners with an SOE. The government’s reluctance to guarantee projects reflects its desire to stay below a statutory 65 percent public debt-to-GDP ratio cap, and a desire to avoid incurring liabilities from projects that would not be economically viable without the guarantee. This has delayed approval of many large-scale FDI projects.

Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation

Vietnam has prioritized efforts to establish and develop foreign trade zones (FTZs) over the last decade. Vietnam currently has more than 350 industrial zones (IZs) and export processing zones (EPZs). Many foreign investors report that it is easier to implement projects in IZs because they do not have to be involved in site clearance and infrastructure construction. Enterprises in FTZs pay no duties when importing raw materials if they export the finished products. Customs warehouse companies in FTZs can provide transportation services and act as distributors for the goods deposited.

Additional services relating to customs declaration, appraisal, insurance, reprocessing, or packaging require the approval of the provincial customs office. In practice, the time involved for clearance and delivery of goods by provincial custom officials can be lengthy and unpredictable. Companies operating in economic zones are entitled to more tax reductions as measures to incentivize investments.

Performance and Data Localization Requirements

Vietnamese law states that employers can only recruit foreign nationals for high-skilled positions such as manager, managing director, expert, or technical worker. Local companies must also justify that their efforts to hire suitable local employees were unsuccessful before recruiting foreigners, and local authorities and/or the national government must approve these justifications in writing. This does not apply to board members elected by shareholders or capital contributors.

The government has implemented entry suspension and quarantine regulations for foreigners since March 2020, as a measure to contain COVID-19. Vietnam’s borders are closed for all foreign nationals with only few exceptions for diplomatic, experts, and special cases determined by the government. Foreign nationals travelling to Vietnam are subject to testing, quarantine, and lockdowns with little or no advance notice.

On June 17, 2020, the National Assembly passed the Law on Investment (LOI) 2020, which prescribes market entry conditions for foreign investors, particularly in “conditional” sectors. All investors, foreign or domestics, must obtain formal approval, in the form of business licenses or other certifications, to satisfy “necessary conditions for reasons of national defense, security or order, social safety, social morality, and health of the community.” These sectors are listed in Appendix IV (“List of Conditional Investments and Businesses”) of the Law.

LOI 2020 includes two conditions for foreign investors investing in or acquiring capital/share in a Vietnamese company:

  • The investment must not compromise national defense and security of Vietnam; and
  • The investment must comply with the conditions relating to the use of islands, border areas, and coastal areas in accordance with the applicable laws.

The LOI does not define “national defense and security.”

On January 1, 2019, the Law on Cybersecurity (LOCS) came into effect, requiring cross-border services providers to store data of Vietnamese users in Vietnam – despite sustained international and domestic opposition to the regulation. The July 2019 draft of the LOCS implementing decree by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) sparked concerns among foreign digital services firms regarding the draft decree’s provisions on data localization and local presence for a broad range of services in the Internet economy – from cloud computing to email. Provisions of the LOCS require firms to provide unencrypted user information upon request by law enforcement. However, application of this requirement hinges on issuance of the implementing Decree, which is still pending as of April 2021.

In September 2020, MPS released a revised LOCS decree draft, which requires all local companies to comply with data localization requirements and forces foreign services providers to localize their data and establish local presence when they violate Vietnamese laws and fail to cooperate with MPS to address violations. U.S. companies complain that the data localization regulations are impractical, and if implemented, would be unnecessarily burdensome.

The 2019 Law on Tax Administration, which came into force July 1, 2020, requires foreign entities that employ digital platforms without a permanent physical presence in Vietnam to register as tax-paying entities in Vietnam. The Ministry of Finance released a draft circular with guidance on implementation of the Law in March 2021, and is working to revise the law based on stakeholder comments, as of April 2021. American companies have expressed concerns that the original draft circular included unnecessarily complex and unclear regulations of Corporate Income Tax (CIT) and Value Added Tax (VAT) collections, and does not address areas that overlap with Vietnam’s international tax treaties already in force.

In early 2020, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) released a draft outline of the Personal Data Protection Decree (PDPD) and published the first full draft in February 2021 for public comment with an expected effective date of December 1, 2021. Industry and human rights activists have major concerns about data localization provision for personal data, including requirements for local presence, licensing, and registration procedures. If implemented as written, the regulations of cross-border transfer of personal data would affect a wide range of companies.

The Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC) released a draft of Decree 72 on Internet Services and Information Content Online for public comment on April 19, 2020. Foreign companies reported concerns regarding the draft Decree provisions on mandatory licensing requirements; tightened regulations on social media companies; compulsory content review; and policies requiring responses to government takedown requests within 24 to 48 hours. The draft Decree requires local Internet service providers to terminate services for companies that fail to cooperate with the new regulations. The revised decree is scheduled to go into effect in late 2021. The Ministry of Public Security has applied the broadest possible definition of “data,” in the decree, which could threaten some activities of U.S. payment and financial services companies.

MIC is also revising Decree 06 on Management, Provision and Utilization of Radio and Television Services, which applies specifically to streaming services. The first draft, released August 2019, required onerous licensing procedures, local-presence requirements, local-content quotas, content preapproval, compulsory translation, and local advertising agents that are inconsistent with Vietnam’s commitments under the World Trade Organization (WTO). The latest, December 2020, draft continues to include licensing requirements for cross-border over-the-top (OTT) services providers and pre-check content censorship.

5. Protection of Property Rights

Real Property

The State collectively owns and manages all land in Vietnam, and therefore neither foreigners nor Vietnamese nationals can own land. However, the government grants land-use and building rights, often to individuals. According to the Ministry of National Resources and Environment (MONRE), as of September 2018 – the most recent time period in which the government has made figures available – the government has issued land-use rights certificates for 96.9 percent of land in Vietnam. If land is not used according to the land-use rights certificate or if it is unoccupied, it reverts to the government. If investors do not use land leased within 12 consecutive months or delay land use by 24 months from the original investment schedule, the government is entitled to reclaim the land. Investors can seek an extension of delay but not for more than 24 months. Vietnam is building a national land-registration database, and some localities have already digitized their land records.

State protection of property rights are still evolving, and the law does not clearly demarcate circumstances in which the government would use eminent domain. Under the Housing Law and Real Estate Business Law of November 2014, the government can take land if it deems it necessary for socio-economic development in the public or national interest if the Prime Minister, the National Assembly, or the Provincial People’s Council approves such action. However, the law loosely defines “socio-economic development.”

Disputes over land rights continue to be a significant driver of social protests in Vietnam. Foreign investors also may be exposed to land disputes through merger and acquisition activities when they buy into a local company or implement large-scale infrastructure projects.

Foreign investors can lease land for renewable periods of 50 years, and up to 70 years in some underdeveloped areas. This allows titleholders to conduct property transactions, including mortgages on property. Some investors have encountered difficulties amending investment licenses to expand operations onto land adjoining existing facilities. Investors also note that local authorities may seek to increase requirements for land-use rights when current rights must be renewed, particularly when the investment in question competes with Vietnamese companies.

Intellectual Property Rights

Vietnam does not have a strong record on protecting and enforcing intellectual property (IP). Lack of coordination among ministries and agencies responsible for enforcement is a primary obstacle, and capacity constraints related to enforcement persist, in part, due to a lack of resources and IP expertise. Vietnam continues to rely heavily on administrative enforcement actions, which have consistently failed to deter widespread counterfeiting and piracy.

There were some positive developments in 2020-2021, such as the issuance of a national IP strategy, public awareness campaigns and training activities, and reported improvements on border enforcement in some parts of the country. Overall, however,IP enforcement continues to be a challenge.

The United States is closely monitoring and engaging with the Vietnamese government in the ongoing implementation of amendments to the 2015 Penal Code, particularly with respect to criminal enforcement of IP violations. Counterfeit goods are widely available online and in physical markets. In addition, issues continue to persist with online piracy (including the use of piracy devices and applications to access unauthorized audiovisual content), book piracy, lack of effective criminal measures for cable and satellite signal theft, and both private and public-sector software piracy..

Vietnam’s system for protecting against the unfair commercial use and unauthorized disclosure of undisclosed tests or other data generated to obtain marketing approval for pharmaceutical products needs further clarification.  The United States is monitoring the implementation of IP provisions of the CPTPP, which the National Assembly ratified in November 2018, and the EVFTA, which Vietnam’s National Assembly ratified in June 2020. The EVFTA grandfathered prior users of certain cheese terms from the restrictions in the geographical indications provisions of the EVFTA, and it is important that Vietnam ensure market access for prior users of those terms who were in the Vietnamese market before the grandfathering date of January 1, 2017.

In its international agreements, Vietnam committed to strengthen its IP regime and is in the process of drafting implementing legislation and other measures in a number of IP-related areas, including in preparation for acceding to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty.  In September 2019, Vietnam acceded to the Hague Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Industrial Designs, and the United States will monitor implementation of that agreement.

The United States, through the U.S.-Vietnam Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) and other bilateral fora, continues to urge Vietnam to address IP issues and to provide interested stakeholders with meaningful opportunities for input as it proceeds with these reforms. The United States and Vietnam signed a Customs Mutual Assistance Agreement in December 2019, which will facilitate bilateral cooperation in IP enforcement.

In 2020, the Intellectual Property Office of Vietnam (IP Vietnam) reported receiving 119,986 IP applications of all types (down 0.7 percent from 2019), of which 76,072 were registered for industrial property rights (up 1.7 percent from 2019). IP Vietnam reported granting 4,591 patents in 2020 (up 63 percent from 2019). Industrial designs registrations reached 2,054 in 2020 (down 5.4 percent from 2019). In total, IP Vietnam granted more than 47,168 protection titles for industrial property, out of 76,072 applications in 2020 (up 15.6 percent from 2019). The General Department of Market Management in 2020 detected 7,442 cases relating to counterfeit goods on physical and online markets, copyright and IP violations, imposing fines of USD 5 million. The Copyright Office of Vietnam received and settled 12 copyright petitions and five requests for copyright assessment in 2020. In 2020, the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism’s Inspector General carried out inspections for software licensing compliance, resulting in total fines of USD 23,000. For more information, please see the following reports from the U.S. Trade Representative:

  • Special 301 Report:  https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/2020_Special_301_Report.pdf
  • Notorious Markets Report: https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/2020_Special_301_Report.pdf
  • For additional information about national laws and points of contact at local IP offices, please see WIPO’s country profiles at .

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

The government generally encourages foreign portfolio investment. The country has two stock markets: the Ho Chi Minh City Stock Exchange (HOSE), which lists publicly traded companies, and the Hanoi Stock Exchange, which lists bonds and derivatives. The Law on Securities, which came into effect January 1, 2021, states that Vietnam Exchange, a parent company to both exchanges, with board members appointed by the government, will manage trading operations. Vietnam also has a market for unlisted public companies (UPCOM) at the Hanoi Securities Center.

Although Vietnam welcomes portfolio investment, the country sometimes has difficulty in attracting such investment. Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI) classifies Vietnam as a Frontier Market, which precludes some of the world’s biggest asset managers from investing in its stock markets.

Vietnam did not meet its goal to be considered an “emerging market” in 2020, and pushed back the timeline to 2025. Foreign investors often face difficulties in making portfolio investments because of cumbersome bureaucratic procedures. Furthermore, in the first three months of 2021, surges in trading frequently crashed the HOSE’s decades-old technology platform, resulting in investor frustration.

There is enough liquidity in the markets to enter and maintain sizable positions. Combined market capitalization at the end of 2020 was approximately USD 230 billion, equal to 84 percent of Vietnam’s GDP, with the HOSE accounting for USD 177 billion, the Hanoi Exchange USD 9 billion, and the UPCOM USD 43 billion. Bond market capitalization reached over USD 50 billion in 2019, the majority of which were government bonds held by domestic commercial banks.

Vietnam complies with International Monetary Fund (IMF) Article VIII. The government notified the IMF that it accepted the obligations of Article VIII, Sections 2, 3, and 4, effective November 8, 2005.

Local banks generally allocate credit on market terms, but the banking sector is not as sophisticated or capitalized as those in advanced economies. Foreign investors can acquire credit in the local market, but both foreign and domestic firms often seek foreign financing since domestic banks do not have sufficient capital at appropriate interest rate levels for a significant number of FDI projects.

Money and Banking System

Vietnam’s banking sector has been stable since recovering from the 2008 global recession. Nevertheless, the State Bank of Vietnam (SBV), Vietnam’s central bank, estimated in 2019 that 55 percent of Vietnam’s population is underbanked or lacks bank accounts due to a preference for cash, distrust in commercial banking, limited geographical distribution of banks, and a lack of financial acumen. The World Bank’s Global Findex Database 2017 (the most recent available) estimated that only 31 percent of Vietnamese over the age of 15 had an account at a financial institution or through a mobile money provider.

The COVID-19 pandemic increased strains on the financial system as an increasing number of debtors were unable to make loan payments. Slow credit growth, together with increases in debtors’ inability to pay back loans, squeezed bank profits in 2020. At the end of 2020, the SBV reported that the percentage of non-performing loans (NPLs) in the banking sector was 2.14 percent, up from 1.9 percent at the end of 2019.

By the end of 2020, per SBV, the banking sector’s estimated total assets stood at USD 572 billion, of which USD 236 billion belonged to seven state-owned and majority state-owned commercial banks – accounting for 41 percent of total assets in the sector. Though classified as joint-stock (private) commercial banks, the Bank of Investment and Development Bank (BIDV), Vietnam Joint Stock Commercial Bank for Industry and Trade (VietinBank), and Joint Stock Commercial Bank for Foreign Trade of Vietnam (Vietcombank) all are majority-owned by SBV. In addition, the SBV holds 100 percent of Agribank, Global Petro Commercial Bank (GPBank), Construction Bank (CBBank), and Oceanbank.

Currently, the total foreign ownership limit (FOL) in a Vietnamese bank is 30 percent, with a 5 percent limit for non-strategic individual investors, a 15 percent limit for non-strategic institutional investors, and a 20 percent limit for strategic institutional partners.

The U.S. Mission in Vietnam did not find any evidence that a Vietnamese bank had lost a correspondent banking relationship in the past three years; there is also no evidence that a correspondent banking relationship is currently in jeopardy.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

There are no legal restrictions on foreign investors converting and repatriating earnings or investment capital from Vietnam. A foreign investor can convert and repatriate earnings provided the investor has the supporting documents required by law proving they have completed financial obligations. The SBV sets the interbank lending rate and announces a daily interbank reference exchange rate. SBV determines the latter based on the previous day’s average interbank exchange rates, while considering movements in the currencies of Vietnam’s major trading and investment partners. The government generally keeps the exchange rate at a stable level compared to major world currencies.

Remittance Policies

Vietnam mandates that in-country transactions must be made in the local currency – Vietnamese dong (VND). The government allows foreign businesses to remit lawful profits, capital contributions, and other legal investment earnings via authorized institutions that handle foreign currency transactions. Although foreign companies can remit profits legally, sometimes these companies find bureaucratic difficulties, as they are required to provide supporting documentation (audited financial statements, import/foreign-service procurement contracts, proof of tax obligation fulfillment, etc.). SBV also requires foreign investors to submit notification of profit remittance abroad to tax authorities at least seven working days prior to the remittance; otherwise there is no waiting period to remit an investment return.

The inflow of foreign currency into Vietnam is less constrained. There are no recent changes or plans to change investment remittance policies that either tighten or relax access to foreign exchange for investment remittances.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

Vietnam does not have a sovereign wealth fund.

7. State-Owned Enterprises

The 2020 Enterprises Law, which came into effect January 1, 2021, defines an SOE as an enterprise that is more than 50 percent owned by the government. Vietnam does not officially publish a list of SOEs.

In 2018, the government created the Commission for State Capital Management at Enterprises (CMSC) to manage SOEs with increased transparency and accountability. The CMSC’s goals include accelerating privatization in a transparent manner, promoting public listings of SOEs, and transparency in overall financial management of SOEs.

SOEs do not operate on a level playing field with domestic or foreign enterprises and continue to benefit from preferential access to resources such as land, capital, and political largesse. Third-party market analysts note that a significant number of SOEs have extensive liabilities, including pensions owed, real estate holdings in areas not related to the SOE’s ostensible remit, and a lack of transparency with respect to operations and financing.

Privatization Program

Vietnam officially started privatizing SOEs in 1998. The process has been slow because privatization typically transfers only a small share of an SOE (two to three percent) to the private sector, and investors have had concerns about the financial health of many companies. Additionally, the government has inadequate regulations with respect to privatization procedures.

8. Responsible Business Conduct

Companies are required to publish their corporate social responsibility activities, corporate governance work, information of related parties and transactions, and compensation of management. Companies must also announce extraordinary circumstances, such as changes to management, dissolution, or establishment of subsidiaries, within 36 hours of the event.

Most multinational companies implement Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs that contribute to improving the business environment in Vietnam, and awareness of CSR programs is increasing among large domestic companies. The VCCI conducts CSR training and highlights corporate engagement on a dedicated website ( http://www.csr-vietnam.eu/  ) in partnership with the UN.

AmCham also has a CSR group that organizes events and activities to raise awareness of social issues. Non-governmental organizations collaborate with government bodies, such as VCCI and the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs (MOLISA), to promote business practices in Vietnam in line with international norms and standards.

Vietnam is not a part of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

Overall, the government has not defined responsible business conduct (RBC), nor has it established a national plan or agenda for RBC. The government has yet to establish a national point of contact or ombudsman for stakeholders to get information or raise concerns regarding RBC. The new Labor Code, which came into effect January 1, 2021, recognizes the right of employees to establish their own representative organizations, allows employees to unilaterally terminate labor contract without reason, and extends legal protection to non-written contract employees. For a detailed description of regulations on worker/labor rights in Vietnam, see the Department of State’s Human Rights Report ( https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-country-reports-on-human-rights-practices/vietnam/).

Vietnam’s Law on Consumer Protection is designed to protect consumers, but in practice the law is ineffective. A consumer who has a complaint on a product or service can petition the Association for Consumer Protection (ACP) or district governments. ACP is a non-governmental, volunteer organization that lacks law enforcement or legal power, and local governments are typically unresponsive to consumer complaints. The Vietnamese government has not focused on consumer protection over the last several years.

Vietnam allows foreign companies to work in private security. Vietnam has not ratified the Montreux Documents, is not a supporter of the International Code of Conduct or Private Security Service Providers, and is not a participant in the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers’ Association (ICoCA).

Vietnamese legislation clearly specifies businesses’ responsibilities regarding environmental protection. The revised 2020 Environmental Protection Law, which will come into effect on January 1, 2022, states that environmental protection is the responsibility and obligation of all organizations, institutions, communities, households, and individuals.

The Penal Code, revised in 2017, includes a chapter with 12 articles regulating different types of environmental crimes. In accordance with the Penal Code, penalties for infractions carry a maximum of 15 years in prison and a fine equivalent to USD 650,000. However, enforcement remains a problem. To date, no complaint or request for compensation due to damages caused by pollution or other environmental violations has ever been successfully resolved in court due to difficulties in identifying the level of damages and proving the relationship between violators and damages.

In the past several years, there have been high-profile, controversial instances of private sector impact on human rights – particularly over the revocation of land for real estate development projects. Government suppression of these protests ranged from intimidation and harassment via the media (including social media) to imprisonment. There are numerous examples of government-supported forces beating protestors, journalists, and activists covering land issues. Victims have reported they are unable to press claims against their attackers.

Additional Resources

Department of State

  • Country Reports on Human Rights Practices ();
  • Trafficking in Persons Report ();
  • Guidance on Implementing the “UN Guiding Principles” for Transactions Linked to Foreign Government End-Users for Products or Services with Surveillance Capabilities () and;
  • North Korea Sanctions & Enforcement Actions Advisory ().

Department of Labor

  • Findings on the Worst forms of Child Labor Report ( );
  • List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor ();
  • Sweat & Toil: Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking Around the World () and;
  • Comply Chain ().

9. Corruption

Vietnam has laws to combat corruption by public officials, and they extend to all citizens. Corruption is due, in large part, to low levels of transparency, accountability, and media freedom, as well as poor remuneration for government officials and inadequate systems for holding officials accountable. Competition among agencies for control over businesses and investments has created overlapping jurisdictions and bureaucratic procedures that, in turn, create opportunities for corruption.

The government has tasked various agencies to deal with corruption, including the Central Steering Committee for Anti-Corruption (chaired by the Communist Party of Vietnam General Secretary), the Government Inspectorate, and line ministries and agencies. Formed in 2007, the Central Steering Committee for Anti-Corruption has been under the purview of the CPV Central Commission of Internal Affairs since February 2013. The National Assembly provides oversight on the operations of government ministries. Civil society organizations have encouraged the government to establish a single independent agency with oversight and enforcement authority to ensure enforcement of anti-corruption laws.

Resource to Report Corruption

Contact at government agency responsible for combating corruption:

Mr. Phan Dinh TracChairman, Communist Party Central Committee Internal Affairs4 Nguyen Canh Chan; +84 0804-3557Contact at NGO:Ms. Nguyen Thi Kieu VienExecutive Director, Towards TransparencyTransparency International National Contact in VietnamFloor 4, No 37 Lane 35, Cat Linh street, Dong Da, Hanoi, Vietnam; +84-24-37153532Fax: +84-24-37153443; kieuvien@towardstransparency.vn 

10. Political and Security Environment

Vietnam is a unitary single-party state, and its political and security environment is largely stable. Protests and civil unrest are rare, though there are occasional demonstrations against perceived or real social, environmental, labor, and political injustices.

In August 2019, online commentators expressed outrage over the slow government response to an industrial fire in Hanoi that released unknown amounts of mercury. Other localized protests in 2019 and early 2020 broke out over alleged illegal dumping in waterways and on public land, and the perceived government attempts to cover up potential risks to local communities.

Citizens sometimes protest actions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), usually online. For example, in June 2019, when PRC Coast Guard vessels harassed the operations of Russian oil company Rosneft in Block 06-01, Vietnam’s highest-producing natural gas field, Vietnamese citizens protested via Facebook and, in a few instances, in public.

In April 2016, after the Formosa Steel plant discharged toxic pollutants into the ocean and caused a large number of fish deaths, affected fishermen and residents in central Vietnam began a series of regular protests against the company and the government’s lack of response to the disaster. Protests continued into 2017 in multiple cities until security forces largely suppressed the unrest. Many activists who helped organize or document these protests were subsequently arrested and imprisoned.

11. Labor Policies and Practices

Vietnam’s new Labor Code came into effect on January 1, 2021. The CPTPP and the EVFTA have helped advance labor reform in Vietnam. In June 2020, EVFTA helped push Vietnam to ratify International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 105 – on the abolition of forced labor – which will come into force July 14, 2021. EVFTA also requires Vietnam to ratify Convention 87, on freedom of association and protection of the right to organize, by 2023. Although Vietnam has made some progress on labor issues in recent years, including, in theory, allowing the formation of independent unions, the sole union that has any real authority is the state-controlled Vietnam General Confederation of Labor. Workers will not be able to form independent unions, legally, until the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs (MOLISA) issues guidance on implementation of the Labor Code.

According to Vietnam’s General Statistics Office (GSO), in 2020 there were 54.6 million people participating in the formal labor force in Vietnam out of over 74 million people aged 15 and above. The labor force is relatively young, with workers 15-39 years of age accounting for half of the total labor force.

Estimates on the size of the informal economy differ widely. The IMF states 40 percent of Vietnam’s laborers work on the informal economy; the World Bank puts the figure at 55 percent; the ILO puts the figure as high as 79 percent if agricultural households are included. Vietnam’s GSO stated that among 53.4 million employed people, 20.3 million people worked in the informal economy.

An employer is permitted to lay off employees due to technological changes, organizational changes (in cases of a merger, consolidation, or cessation of operation of one or more departments), when the employer faces economic difficulties, or when the employees are harassing others at work. There are no waivers on labor requirements to attract foreign investment. COVID-19 increased the number of layoffs in the Vietnamese economy. In March and April 2020, and again in September 2020, the government provided cash payments and supplemental cash for companies, to help pay salaries for workers and offer unemployment insurance.

The constitution affords the right of association and the right to demonstrate. The 2019 Labor Code, which came into effect on January 1, 2021, allows workers to establish and join independent unions of their choice. However, the relevant governmental agencies are still drafting the implementing decrees on procedures to establish and join independent unions, and to determine the level of autonomy independent unions will have in administering their affairs.

Labor dispute resolution mechanisms vary depending on the situation. Individual labor disputes and rights-based collective labor disputes must go through a defined process that includes labor conciliation, labor arbitration, and a court hearing.

Vietnam has been a member of the ILO since 1992, and has ratified six of the core ILO labor conventions (Conventions 100 and 111 on discrimination, Conventions 138 and 182 on child labor, Convention 29 on forced labor, and Convention 98 on rights to organize and collective bargaining). While the constitution and law prohibit forced or compulsory labor, Vietnam has not ratified Convention 105 on forced labor as a means of political coercion and discrimination and Convention 87 on freedom of association and protection of the rights to organize.

13. Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Portfolio Investment Statistics

 

Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or International Source of Data:BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
Economic Data Year Amount Year Amount
Host Country Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (millions USD) 2020 2370 2020 3400 General Statistics Office (GSO) for Host Country and IMF for International Source https://www.imf.org/en/Countries/VNM#countrydata 
Foreign Direct Investment Host Country Statistical source* USG or international statistical source USG or international Source of data: BEA; IMF; Eurostat; UNCTAD, Other
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, stock positions) 2020 10,418 2019 2,615 BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data  
Host country’s FDI in the United States ($M USD, stock positions) 2020 N/A 2019 57 BEA data available at https://www.bea.gov/international/direct-investment-and-multinational-enterprises-comprehensive-data  
Total inbound stock of FDI as % host GDP 2020 N/A 2019 49.3 UNCTAD data available at https://unctad.org/en/Pages/DIAE/World%20Investment%20Report/ountry-Fact-Sheets.aspx  
Table 2: Key Macroeconomic Data, U.S. FDI in Host Country/Economy

* General Statistics Office (GSO)

Table 3: Sources and Destination of FDI

Direct Investment from/in Counterpart Economy Data
From Top Five Sources/To Top Five Destinations (US Dollars, Millions)
Inward Direct Investment Outward Direct Investment
Total Inward Amount 100% Total Outward Amount 100%
Singapore 6,828 32%
South Korea 2,946 14%
China 2,070 10%
Hong Kong 1,737 8%
Taiwan 1,707 8%
“0” reflects amounts rounded to +/- USD 500,000.

Data not available.

Portfolio Investment Assets
Top Five Partners (Millions, current US Dollars) (From MPI)
Total Equity Securities Total Debt Securities
All Countries Amount 100% N/A N/A
Singapore 2,166 29%
Japan 1,149 15%
South Korea 1,003 13%
Netherlands 445 6%
China 390 5%
Table 4: Sources of Portfolio Investment

14. Contact for More Information

Economic SectionU.S. Embassy7 Lang Ha, Ba Dinh, Hanoi, Vietnam +84-24-3850-5000+84-24-3850-5000 InvestmentClimateVN@state.gov 

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