Between January 20 and 28, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is scheduled to convene its 12th national congress. The Party congress is to Vietnam in some sense what the presidential election is to the United States: It decides who the country’s next leaders will be.
But there are some very significant differences between the Vietnamese and American systems. In the United States, the president is elected by members of the Electoral College who are in turn elected by millions of voters. In Vietnam, it is the delegates of the National Congress who elect the Central Committee, which then elects the Party general secretary (the country’s supreme leader) and the Politburo members (the country’s collective leadership). But even the congress delegates will have very limited choices. Usually the outgoing Central Committee will select the next Party chief complete with the next Politburo, the next prime minister, the next state president, the next National Assembly chair, and the next cabinet members. The outgoing Central Committee also assembles a list of candidates from which the congress can form the next Central Committee.
In the United States, you don’t know who will be in the government until you know who the president is. In Vietnam, the order is reversed. The most consequential question is answered last, and the least important first. Thus, you only find out who the next Party chief is in the last moments before the Party congress, but you can be more certain about the new cabinet’s members much earlier.
Although the next government will be formally selected by a new National Assembly that is to be elected the coming May, most of the ministries are already fairly clear on who their next minister will be. According to diplomatic sources in Hanoi, the Defense Ministry will get a new boss in the person of the present head of the Vietnam People’s Army General Political Directorate, Ngo Xuan Lich. The Public Security Ministry will also change ministers, with To Lam, one of the present deputy ministers, slated to be the new minister. Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh will remain in his current job. By the time of the 13th Central Committee Plenum in late December 2015, the most likely scenario also foresaw current Public Security Minister Tran Dai Quang becoming the next Party boss of Ho Chi Minh City and current Chief of the VCP Central Propaganda Commission Dinh The Huynh the new Party boss of Hanoi.
The top four posts – Party chief, prime minister, state president, and National Assembly chair – were to be decided at the VCP Central Committee’s 14th plenum, which took place early this week. The pool of candidates for these highest positions is limited, however, because they must be in the current Politburo and most of the current Politburo members will retire at the 12th congress. According to a rule that has been in place for years, the age limit for a Politburo member to stay into a next term is 65. Ten of the current 16 Politburo members will be older than 65 years at the time of the 12th congress. The 14th Plenum was to make decision about the exceptions to this rule. Basically the question was, who among the current top four – Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, State President Truong Tan Sang, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, and National Assembly Chair Nguyen Sinh Hung – would stay.
The strongest scenario that emerged at the 13th plenum was that Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong would be the only exception to the rule, and he would stay for two more years in his current job, which then would be turned over to either Tran Dai Quang or Dinh The Huynh. The new state president would be either current Fatherland Front Chairman Nguyen Thien Nhan or current Vice-Chairwoman of the National Assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan. Ngan and current Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc would be the candidates for the prime minister’s post. And the one among the three who did not get the other two posts would be the new National Assembly chair. At the 14th plenum, the Central Committee reportedly voted for Trong to remain general secretary, Quang to become the new state president, Phuc to be the next prime minister, and Ngan to be the new National Assembly chair. (In another important development, the 14th plenum also endorsed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, making certain that Vietnam will sign and ratify the pact.)
The leadership equation recommended by the 14th plenum will remain just that – a recommendation – until the 12th Party Congress makes the final decision. Until then, the toughest question, “who will be the next Party chief,” cannot be viewed as resolved. This question has been the trickiest one for every congress for decades. But the hallmark of the 12th congress next week is that the race for the highest position in the country is the most tense ever. The leading contenders for the post are the incumbent general secretary, Trong and the prime minister, Dung. Dung is extremely determined to become the next general secretary, and Trong is equally determined to deny him the job. What’s more, the two are polar opposites. At their core, Trong is a mandarin, while Dung is a capitalist; one is loyal to his principles, the other to his profits. This personality contrast is one of the reasons for the severity of their clash.
These characteristics should not imply, as many outside observers often assume, that Trong is pro-China and anti-Western while Dung is pro-U.S. and anti-China. The reality is far more nuanced and complex. In fact, neither Trong nor Dung can be described as either soft or tough on China; each combines softness with toughness in his own way.
One of Dung’s best remembered statements is his heroic comment on Vietnam’s relations with China, “We do not trade sovereignty and territorial integrity for a quixotic peace and a dependent friendship.” During the HYSY-981 oil rig crisis of 2014, Dung advocated launching legal action against China in the South China Sea. More recently, Dung was the only Vietnamese leader to offer Chinese President Xi Jinping a full hug when the latter visited Hanoi in early November 2015. Perhaps to reward this and other offers Dung made during that talk, Xi then extended the only invitation he made during the trip to Dung, rather than to his rivals Trong and Sang, to visit China in the future. A veteran watcher of Sino-Vietnamese relations has commented that this signaled the Chinese approval of Dung as the next leader of Vietnam. Some analysts also note that China’s redeployment of the HYSY-981 oil rig near the Vietnamese EEZ and test flights on a newly built airstrip in the Spratlys, both in the time period between the 13th end 14th plenums, may help to strengthen Dung’s position in his bid for Vietnam’s top job.
In contrast, Trong’s public comments on Vietnam’s relations with China are remarkable for their dullness. Responding to voters’ concerns about China’s expansion in the South China Sea, Trong said, “We have maintained independence and sovereignty, but we must also resolutely preserve the regime, ensure the leadership role of the Party, maintain a peaceful and stable environment for national construction and development, and maintain friendly relations with other countries, including China.” Behind the scenes, however, Trong made some decisions that can only be viewed as tough on China and soft on the United States. In 2011, he strongly defended the appointment of Pham Binh Minh as the new Foreign Minister, over China’s objections. (Minh is the son of former Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach, whose retirement at the 7th VCP congress in 1991 was one of China’s conditions for renormalization between the two countries.) In 2012, Trong threw his support behind the Law of the Sea of Vietnam, passage of which had been delayed for years due to Chinese opposition. More recently, in 2015, Trong yielded to U.S. insistence and made a major concession to allow independent labor unions, paving the way for Vietnam to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Party vs. Government?
Many outside observers view the political infighting in Vietnam as a rivalry between the Party and the government, with Trong commanding the Party camp and Dung the government bloc. Again, the reality is not so simple. Within the framework of a party-state, there is significant fluidity between party and government structures. This is even more true with the “circulation of cadres” (luân chuyển cán bộ), a practice copied from China, where senior officials have to rise through different positions in the government bureaucracy and the Party apparatus both at the central and provincial levels. Trong and Dung, through their position at the apex of the two structures, can mobilize their respective apparatus to a certain extent, but their real power rests on networks that cut across the Party-government border. For example, of the five deputy prime ministers, only one – Hoang Trung Hai – is Dung’s ally; none of the other four – Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Vu Van Ninh, Vu Duc Dam, and Pham Binh Minh – is in the Dung camp. At the same time, many of the Party bosses in the provinces and the central Party apparatus are allies of Dung, while Trong also has his allies in the central and provincial Government bureaucracies.
Nor does the ideological frame of conservatives vs. reformers seem to fit the Trong-Dung contest. Whether Dung is a reformer is a contentious issue. Supporters believe that he promotes institutional reform with more market and less state. Dung’s 2014 New Year address sounded like a reformist manifesto. Authored by former Trade Minister Truong Dinh Tuyen, a credentialed reformer, the address contends that institutional reform and democratization are the two key motors of development and urges the Party to “hold firm the banner of democracy.” The main tenets of the address, such as “the core of doi moi is democratization,” are no different than those advocated for years by Nguyen Trung, another credentialed reformer. (Trung is the author of then Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet’s 1995 memo, which also outlined a reformist platform, and for which Kiet was attacked by conservatives.) Critics, however, argue that there is a big gap between Dung’s rhetoric and his action. They believe that Dung is willing to sacrifice the national interest for his own personal interest and the interests of his family and cronies. His name has been associated with the default of large state-owned conglomerates Vinashin and Vinalines, which caused losses of billions of dollars.
Trong meanwhile is at best a moderate with some conservative inclinations and at worst a conservative out of touch with reality. His insistence on regime preservation, a leading role for the state in the economy, and other conservative ideas have obstructed reform. Yet Trong has also promoted many reformers. The views of Vuong Dinh Hue, a former Finance Minister who was brought into the Party apparatus by Trong to head the Party’s Central Economic Commission, are not too far from those of Truong Dinh Tuyen. Another prominent protégé of Trong is the late Nguyen Ba Thanh, the charismatic Party boss of Da Nang who was brought in to lead the Party’s central anti-corruption commission. Thanh was, as a Western investor has observed, “the nearest Vietnam has to a Lee Kuan Yew.” Trong’s fierce opposition to Dung’s bid for power has also attracted many reformers who view Trong’s leadership as the more viable alternative to a future full of crony capitalism, corruption, and more authoritarianism.
Vietnam is at its most critical juncture since the end of the Cold War 26 years ago. But its ruling elite is faced with an impossible choice. Ultimately, though, the best hope for those who wish to see Vietnam become the next Asian tiger may lie not in the choice that is made, in the unintended consequence of the political clash it entails.
Alexander L. Vuving is a Professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect those of his employers.