Leading experts on Vietnam have characterized the Tenth Plenum of the 11th Party Congress held earlier this month as a landmark event, suggesting that it has formed a new team of Vietnamese leaders for the next five years. And indeed it was personnel issues that were the focus of the nearly 197 Central Committee and alternate members in Hanoi. While experts in Vietnam and abroad focused mainly on the results of the vote of confidence among the Party Politburo leaders, the underlying significance has not received adequate attention. In fact, the evaluation of individual officials reflected the stances of political elites about the performance of the Party leadership and signaled the future direction of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV).
Since 2011, the CPV leadership has shown a willingness to be flexible within its rigid principles. The first example of this was shown one year after the Eleventh National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). In response to economic instability, the CPV changed its development orientation towards “a focus on controlling escalation, stabilizing [the] micro economy, and socio-politics” (Resolution No. 02 KL/TW of the Politburo). Prior to this decision, the government issued Resolution No. 11/NQ-CP on February 24, 2011, which prioritizes strengthening fiscal and monetary policy.
Earlier, the fourth plenum of the 11th Communist Party Central Committee issued a resolution on “urgent issues in Party building.” These measures aimed to create a sort of checks and balances mechanism within the CPV with the goal of resolving the challenges the party faces. In addition to appraisal and self-appraisal policies, changes within the CPV leadership are also shown through a voting mechanism that allows voters to cast their support for positions that are approved by the National Assembly or the People’s Committee.
Cultivating future leaders is another new change within the CPV. The sixth plenum of the 11th Communist Party Central Committee approved a plan for managing high-profile officials. It is the first time that developing up-and-coming officials has been the focus. Capable junior officers are given managerial tasks at regional stations. With respect to training, over the last two years, a number of officers have been sent overseas to pursue postgraduate degrees or doctorates. Five training sessions were organized with 400 participants recommended by various CPV agencies to be promoted to key leadership positions.
For all the changes, though, the CPV remains wedded to core principles. One of them is to sustain the role of the CPV as the major actor in the political system. In his final remarks to the Congress of CPV’s 10th Central Committee, Nguyen Phu Trong, the General Secretary of the CPV, emphasized that the “CPV would revamp the governmental framework, policies, structure andsystem; improve personnel capacity, working procedure and culture; reform administration systems; fight against red tape and corruption; enhance the efficiency and coordination among agencies in the political system, not to change the political system or the nature of the CP and the government.”
The second principle is to steer a market economy with a socialist orientation. Here, though, internal debate reveals the existence of parallel stances. One view is to run the economy in accordance with market rules that allow competition to increase the economy’s efficiency. In this view, state enterprises would have to compete on the same footing as other market players, without political privileges. The second stance is to maintain the role of the government in crucial sectors by guiding the development of major corporations. This is not so much a question of the extent of government intervention as it is the focus and quality of that intervention. The mainstream thinking is that state enterprises are a tool for macroeconomic stability, provided they operate efficiently. It seems that CPV experts are trying to redefine the tools the government has for managing the economy, and in doing so retain the right of the state to manage and distribute the nation’s resources.
The third principle lies in sustaining a multilateral foreign policy. The HYSY 981 oil-rig incident and China’s pressure over the South China Sea issue has prompted speculation that Vietnam would withdraw from its “Three Nos” defense policy and seek to form a military alliance with the U.S. and its allies. The CPV has shown this speculation to be misplaced. Based on Resolution No. 28 of the Central Committee on contemporary strategies for national defense, the Standing Committee of the CPV’s Central Committee continues to focus on “partners and targets” (đối tác và đối tượng) principle. Hence, forces impeding Vietnam’s development are considered targets, and those who support it are partners. China will not be considered either a complete target or partner, but as a half partner and half target.
For those who have pessimistic or extreme views, the consistent doctrine of the CPV is a stumbling block for future reform and an Achilles heel that could lead to the CPV losing its political significance in Vietnamese politics. For the optimists, timely flexibility is the key to helping the CVP overcome critical challenges. This year is an important one for Vietnam’s economic revitalization. However, the foundations for building sustainable development are still being put in place. As the leading unit on the domestic front, the CPV is looking for a way to balance the various factors that affect Vietnam’s political regime, including the government, the market, the grass-roots, and the public sphere. For external relations, the challenge is to sustain a balance between relations among powers, in the context of a regional power shift.
So 2015 will be a test not only to see whether “flexibility in rigidity” can more effectively manage the upcoming challenges. It is also both a test for the incumbent Party Politburo leaders. Can they make a lasting contribution during this period?
Truong-Minh Vu (PhD) is a foreign affairs and political analyst, focusing on the Southeast Asian region, and a lecturer at the Faculty of International Relations, University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Ho Chi Minh City. He has published articles in numerous academic and policy journals, including Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, East Asia Policy, E-International Relations, Global Asia, and ASIEN. The opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ own.