Where to from here for Vietnam?

Author: Jonathan D. London, City University of Hong Kong

While Vietnam’s 12th Party Congress was billed as a contest for leadership of the party between sitting party secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and sitting prime-minister Nguyen Tan Dung, it might well be remembered as marking the beginning of a generational shift in the party’s top leadership. Yet a generational shift does not necessarily entail major changes. Indeed, for all the excitement and tension that surrounded the congress, the current mood in Vietnam is one of anti-climax.

So what happened? Through a mix of procedural means and clever politicking that took many by surprise, Nguyen Phu Trong secured himself a second term as general secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party. In the process, he and his supporters appear to have effectively short-circuited the political career of the self-styled political maverick Nguyen Tan Dung — the current prime minister, who until as recently as a few months ago was held to be the favourite for the leadership post.

Dung’s own legacy was his downfall. Though widely labelled a reformer, Dung’s record never squarely fit that characterisation. Mostly, he was a smooth politician who built up a powerful patronage network and initiated reforms that promoted the interests of well-placed persons and foreign investors, sometimes to the detriment of the country’s economic performance. While Dung projected himself as being committed to a more open and democratic Vietnam, his critics dismissed such a possibility. Still, much to the chagrin of his critics, Dung’s enigmatic style and wit led many Vietnamese to see his bid for secretary general as a bid for a new direction in Vietnamese politics that, though imperfect, would at the very least bring change.

Instead, the opposite has occurred. It is the party conservatives who are smiling. In the immediate aftermath of the Congress the state-run press was awash with photos of Trong being congratulated by his handpicked clutch of appointees. In contrast, images of Dung have him either standing stoically by or back turned, heading for the exits.

So where to from here? Within Vietnam’s lively cyberspace, and in the international press, the result of the leadership succession has been seen as a vote for continuity within the Communist Party. This is a reasonable conclusion. After all it is Trong, however doctrinaire and ridiculed, who has prevailed. It is Trong, and not the maverick Dung, who will remain general secretary for at least two years and maybe five. But it is still unclear who would replace Trong after this term. And so the long-term direction and spirit of Vietnam’s elite politics remains an open question.

There are other signs of continuity. One example is the abundance of public security and party watchdogs in the newly selected Politburo. Vietnam’s newly anointed state president is the country’s ‘top cop.’ As for the other top two leadership posts — prime minister and national assembly president — these include, respectively, a non-descript bureaucrat from the central region and a southerner who, while competent in social affairs, has yet to distinguish herself otherwise.

Perhaps the most important continuity is that Vietnam will remain a country ruled by committee, despite calls for ‘urgent political reforms’ from an outgoing minister of planning. In this respect Vietnam differs from virtually every other country in the world. The country’s supreme politcal body, the politburo, now comprises 19 members.

Absent Dung, should we assume reforms in Vietnam will be slowing down? Perhaps not. The new politburo has a number of young, able and energetic members representing key policy areas such as finance and foreign affairs. And the broader spirit of Vietnamese politics is, however halting, not one of inaction.

And there is pressure for change. While ensuring the Party’s long-term interests remains the key objective, Vietnam’s leadership is also committed to expanding and deepening international ties. All four of Vietnam’s top leaders have visited the United States within the last year and the entire politburo and central committee recognise the United States as an indispensable trading and security partner. It is clear that times have changed, even with a conservative at the helm.

Vietnam has a lot going for it. But most experts believe that the country’s economy — weakened by overzealous decentralisation and state-centered commercialisation — should be performing better than it is. Whether the Party’s newly selected leadership recognises this and is capable of undertaking meaningful reforms is uncertain. Vietnam’s people are clamouring for reform, but they don’t run the party.

What is perhaps most uncertain is how Trong will cope with Beijing’s expansionism. And how Beijing will conduct itself. As it stands, the militarisation of the South China Sea is fully underway. In the past Trong has advocated a conciliatory approach toward China. Trong is not alone is recognising that it is in Vietnam’s best interest to have as good relations with Beijing as is possible. Still, maintaining neighbourly relations has become a huge challenge. Backed into a corner, Vietnamese will demand the country’s leadership defend the country’s territorial integrity.

So where does Vietnam stand? With this selection of leaders, will Vietnam take steps backwards? Probably not. But the reasons do not lie with elite politics. Vietnam’s people are increasingly politically engaged. They are demanding reform, rights, and greater transparency, and the state is slowly responding. Vietnam now features a quasi-liberal brand of authoritarianism which, despite regular human rights abuses, has failed to mute increasingly open discussion of social and political issues.

For the foreseeable future, Vietnam’s economy will continue to grow. But it is the quality of that growth, and the extent to which it generates benefits for the Vietnamese people, alongside Vietnam’s national security and rights challenges that are Vietnam’s biggest concerns right now. Whether and how Vietnam’s leadership will address these issues remains decidely unclear.

Jonathan London is a professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies and Core Member of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong. His recent publications include Politics in Contemporary Vietnam (Palgrave-Macmillan 2014).