Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Vietnam is preparing for its most important event in five years — the 13th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam, which is expected to take place in late January 2021. The Congress’ key documents will set the agenda for all aspects of the country in the coming years, including Party-military relations.
The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) exercises “absolute, direct and all-round leadership” over the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) through a system of Party organizations and political organizations. The Central Military Commission (CMC) — the highest Party organization in the VPA — for example, is appointed by the Politburo, the highest body of the CPV. The CMC’s members come from the Party Central Committee both within and outside the VPA. The General Political Department (GPD), led by the CMC, is the top political organization in the VPA. It guides, trains and inspects all units in the VPA to carry out political propaganda and ideological education, among other tasks. The goal of the CMC and the GPD is to make the VPA strong in politics and ideology.
In the last three decades, the CPV has gradually institutionalized its control over the armed forces, including the VPA, through legal documents. The reunification of the country in 1975 and the formation of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam led to a need to replace the 1959 constitution. The 1980 constitution gave the CPV a dominant role in deciding all the state activities. However, its article 51 read “all units of the people’s armed forces must show absolute loyalty to the homeland and the people; their duty is to stand ready to fight to safeguard the fruits of the revolution, national independence and sovereignty, the country’s unity and territorial integrity, national security and social order, people’s freedom, happiness and peaceful labor, and to join the entire people in national construction.” The article concerned only the homeland and the people and did not mention the Party.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 1991 political report of the 6th Central Committee presented at the 7th National Congress expressed the Party’s concern over hostile forces at home and abroad trying to exploit the crisis of socialism and the Party’s weaknesses. A new constitution was written in 1992 for the country to adapt to a more liberal political and economic environment. The 1992 constitution also introduced an important change with regard to Party-military relations. Its article 45 stated “all units of the people’s armed forces must show absolute loyalty to the motherland and the people; their duty is to stand ready to fight to safeguard national independence and sovereignty, the country’s unity and territorial integrity, national security and social order, to safeguard the socialist regime and the fruits of the revolution, and to join the entire people in national construction.” The amendment made defense of the socialist regime one of the core missions of the armed forces, including the VPA.
As territorial disputes in the South China Sea started to escalate in the second half of the 2000s, Vietnam emphasized modernizing its military. A more professional and independent military, however, could pose a threat to the Communist Party. To ensure that the army is a reliable force of the Party, the 2013 constitution was introduced after the 11th National Congress in 2011. Its article 65 said “the people’s armed forces must show absolute loyalty to the homeland, the People, the Party, and the State; their duty is to protect national independence and sovereignty, the country’s unity and territorial integrity, national security and social order, to protect the People, the Party, the State, and the socialist regime and the fruits of the revolution, and to join the entire people in national construction and fulfillment of international duties.” Besides the duty to safeguard the socialist regime, as stated in the 1992 constitution, the article required the VPA and other armed forces to be absolutely loyal to the Communist Party.
The VPA has played a crucial role in defending the socialist regime, not from hot weapons but from the perceived so-called “peaceful evolution” — a strategy of unarmed means employed by anti-communist forces under the cover of “democracy,” “freedom,” and “human rights” to overthrow the Communist Party. The 2011 political report of the 10th Central Committee presented at the 11th National Party Congress identified the VPA and the People’s Public Security, the main police and security force, as the two main forces in the fight against the “peaceful evolution” strategy.
In the era of information technology, the Internet and the boom of social media have created numerous platforms for criticism of the Party. By 2018, 70 percent of Vietnam’s population was using the Internet, compared to only 35 percent in 2011. The 2016 political report of the 11th Central Committee presented at the 12th National Party Congress recognized the “radical use of media” on the Internet by hostile forces implementing “peaceful evolution” and the internal threats of “self-evolving,” “self-transforming,” and “self-expression.” The report raised an alarm that the confidence of officials, party members and people in the Party and the present regime has been reduced.
In response, Vietnam established Task Force 47, named after Directive No. 47 of the General Political Department, in 2017 to counter “wrong” views on the Internet. The new force is a combat unit within the VPA that consists of 10,000 members who are “red and competent,” meaning they have both strong political ideology and technology expertise. Lieutenant General Nguyen Trong Nghia — deputy director of the Political General Department of the VPA emphasized the country should “stay ready to fight against wrongful views in every second, minute, and hour.”
The VPA continues to be strengthened and proactively contribute to the regime’s stability. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the CPV has mobilized the VPA to join the fight against the coronavirus and the spread of misinformation. The generally respected military is praised as front-line heroes alongside healthcare workers. The pandemic presents the CPV an opportunity to showcase effective leadership and gain legitimacy that has significant implication for the upcoming National Congress.
Bich T. Tran is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Antwerp, a researcher at the Global Affairs Research Center in Kyoto, and a former Asia Studies Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington.