Vietnam Is Changing… And So Is the Balance of Power in Asia

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Vietnam Is Changing… And So Is the Balance of Power in Asia

All signs point to intense internal debate on leadership and foreign policy.

Vietnam Is Changing… And So Is the Balance of Power in Asia
Credit: Kenneth Dedeu via

On September 15, Vietnam’s political log jam suddenly burst with the simultaneous launch of a website dedicated to preparations for the twelfth national party congress and the release of the draft Political Report and Socio-Economic Plan for 2016-2020.

The Vietnamese public has been given until the end of October to send in comments on the draft policy documents.

Key policy documents are usually released well in advance of a national congress. For example, the draft Political Report and Five-Year Socio-Economic Plan were released nine months before the eleventh national party congress in January 2011. This time only four months remain to complete preparations for the twelfth congress scheduled for January 2016.

Prior to the launch of the website and release of key policy documents, Vietnam’s preparations for the twelfth party congress had been particularly low key. Although leadership selection was discussed at the eleventh plenary meeting of the party Central Committee that met in May no announcements were made.

Observers in Hanoi report that the Central Committee may reconvene in October to resolve the impasse over leadership with a further session planned for November if consensus cannot be reached.

Media reports suggest there are two main contenders for the post of party Secretary General – Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and his long-term rival President Truong Tan Sang. Both are southerners. The post of party leader has traditionally gone to a northerner.

If the party Central Committee cannot reach consensus there are two likely possibilities. The first possibility is that both candidates will stand down and retire from politics and the next party leader will be chosen from among the members of the current Politburo who are eligible for election at the congress.

The second possibility could see the incumbent party leader, Nguyen Phu Trong, reappointed on the understanding that he would make way for another leader before his five-year term in office expired. This solution would mirror the decision by the eighth party congress in 1996 to re-appoint Do Muoi as party Secretary General on the understanding he would step down before mid-term. Do Muoi was replaced by Le Kha Phieu in late 1997.

When Vietnam enters its political season in advance of a national party congress current events are subject to intense scrutiny by political observers to discern which way the winds are blowing. This year is no exception.

For example, when the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi held a reception to celebrate its National Day (held early on September 29) Vietnam was represented by its Minister for Planning and Investment, Bui Quang Vinh. Vinh is not a member of the Politburo and is expected to retire after the twelfth party congress. There was intense speculation in Hanoi why such a comparatively “low level” official represented the Vietnamese government.

On September 30, the day after the reception, Vietnamese media reported that Ha Huy Hoang, a former employee of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a former journalist with the Vietnam and the World Weekly, had been tried and convicted for spying for China. Hoang was sentenced to six years in jail.

Media reporting on espionage cases involving Vietnamese citizens are exceedingly rare. This led to speculation on the timing of the trial and who authorised media reporting. Speculation only intensified when Tuoi TreVnExpress and other media outlets took down their reports from their websites on the afternoon of publication. Speculation now turned to who ordered that these reports be rescinded and why.

The timing of the espionage trial took place in the midst of continued in-fighting by Vietnam’s political elite as the twelfth party congress approaches. It is clear that one central issue that has yet to be resolved is how Vietnam will manage its relations with China and the United States. For example, the anoydyne draft Politicial Report gave no hint of future policy directions on this vexed question.

It is evident that some elements of Vietnam’s political elite approved media reporting of the espionage trial involving China and a Vietnamese citizen. This development follows on the heels of reports that China has been given permission to open a Consulate General in Da Nang.

The publicity given to the espionage trial, and the decision to rescind news reporting, is a significant sign that how Vietnam manages its relations with China and the United States is a heated topic at the moment. Those who oppose getting too close to the United States highlight the “threat of peaceful evolution” as a national security threat. They point to U.S. pressure on human rights and religious freedom as part of this threat.

The allegations of Chinese espionage fuels allied concerns that China continues to interfere in Vietnam’s internal affairs and may be attempting to influence the outcome of the forthcoming national party congress. Hanoi based observers have told The Diplomat that China has informed selected Vietnamese leaders that it opposes the elevation of Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, who is viewed as pro-American.

Vietnamese sources also report that China has let it be known privately that President Xi Jinping may call off his expected visit to Vietnam this month if Hanoi does not mute its criticism of China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea. These same sources believe the visit will go ahead because so much is at stake for China.

Those who want closer ties with the United States stress the economic advantages of membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This group is now countering the argument of the “threat of peaceful evolution” by pointing to Chinese espionage as a major threat to national security.

In other words, the threat of peaceful evolution from the United States is now being counterpoised with the threat of Chinese subversion.

Vietnam’s decision to publicize the espionage trial, coupled with the release of several dissidents in recent months, are straws in the wind of a possible change in Vietnam-United States relations.

President Truong Tan Sang recently stated in a media interview that China’s construction of artificial islands was illegal under international law and endangered maritime security. Sang’s interview was given to the Associated Press in New York while he was attending the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.

Sang’s remarks were directed at both international and domestic audiences. Sang’s remarks in New York may be viewed as preparing the grounds for deepening relations with the United States. At the same time, his remarks may be viewed as burnishing his national security credentials domestically.

It should be recalled that Sang visited Washington in mid-2013 and met with President Barack Obama in the White House. After their talks the two leaders announced their agreement on a comprehensive partnership.

Vietnamese leaders who advocate deepening ties with the United States need some indication that Vietnam’s actions will be reciprocated to win over their domestic critics. That is why Sang called for an end to all U.S. restrictions on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam in his New York interview. Sang also repeated affirmations he made in Washington two years ago that Vietnam would engage the United States on human rights.

China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, complete with infrastructure to support a Chinese naval and military air presence, is a major driver behind those pushing for a deeper relationship with the United States.

Vietnam is expected to host official visits by President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama in October and November. Given the present leadership in-fighting in Hanoi each of these visits may be viewed as separate auditions for Vietnam’s future orientation.