The current General Secretary of the Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, successfully secured a second term this week, after a fiercely contested leadership campaign. His main rival in the contest for party leadership was the incumbent Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, but far from being a typical run-of-the-mill leadership challenge, this was a battle which would provide the vision for Vietnam’s future direction: whether as a socialist-cum-capitalist nation firmly ensconced within the heart of Southeast Asia’s efforts to branch out onto the world stage; or as a continuing hard line communist state and vassal of Beijing.
Vietnamese politics are complex, maintaining an uneasy alliance at times between party and state. Sitting at the head of a National Assembly, the highest government institution, the position of Prime Minster is ostensibly the nation’s foremost – ahead even of the State President and National Assembly Chair. In truth, however, it is the General Secretary of the party who calls the big shots. The PM might lead the nation in its day-to-day running but if the General Secretary decides a course of governmental action does not coincide with party policy, then he can ensure that it hits a fairly hefty brick wall. And with radical plans afoot to bring Vietnam into the international fold, at least in terms of part liberalizing its economy, this explains why Dung was so eager to contest a position which, to general appearances, seems the inferior.
Political pundits had invested much faith and optimism in Dung’s accession to the post of General Secretary. Although Trong had the full backing of the Communist old guard, there was a definite feeling that change might be in the air, with the support of the nation’s youth and business community firmly behind Dung. Partly this was due to Dung’s efforts to liberalize the economy, but equally so what that liberalization meant for Vietnam’s relationship with China. Dung’s pursuit of membership in the Trans Pacific Partnership, (TPP) for instance, which it is predicted will increase Vietnam’s GDP by $36 billion, changes the direction of the nation’s economic loyalties. With the TPP very much a part of US policy, Hanoi has shown, under Dung’s leadership, that it is not wholly averse to following Washington’s lead rather than following in the traditional policy of extending its loyalty to Beijing.
In recent years, the relationship between China and Vietnam has been rather bumpy, and Dung’s courtship of China’s rival is a reflection of this. Tensions over territorial disputes stretch back decades, but have most recently have arisen over what Vietnam considers illegal drilling operations in nearby waters. Beijing made some attempt to pacify the consequent ire, but then, right in the middle of the congress, towed another massive exploration rig right into the middle of disputed territories. No coincidence, many observers claim, in what is an obvious attempt to rattle a few sabers and influence the outcome of the 12th National Congress in favor of Trong’s pro-Chinese faction.
This is not the first time that China has been accused of exerting influence upon the proceedings. On the 23rd December, members of the party Central Committee landed in Beijing for five days of meetings with senior Chinese leaders, purportedly to discuss bilateral ties. The official reports, however, vary considerably from unofficial sources, as well as those of independent observers, who claim the meeting’s true purpose was to discuss Chinese dissatisfaction with a pro-US Dung government and alternative leadership that Beijing might be happy to deal with in future. Beijing, it seems, has never quite forgiven Dung for his heroic verbal assault on the unequal relationship that China expected from its southern “ally”. And its gamble on attempting to influence the future leadership of Vietnam could have seriously backfired, much as it has in the Taiwan elections, where the electorate has shown with its ballot slips that it refuses to be influenced by its cross-straits neighbor. Not only might it have been left bereft of a significant ideological ally in the region, but a clear signal would have been sent to the rest of the world that Beijing’s influence in the region, as a friend, mentor and sometime aggressor to the Southeast Asian nations, was waning.
Despite the optimism of those observers who expected Vietnam to follow through with its early promise, it became swiftly apparent that Dung, and those whom he represented, was not to have it his own way. Before the congress had even begun, events unfolded in a way that left the Prime Minster out in the cold, sidelined by the communist old guard through exclusion from the list of candidates. A last minute challenge was mounted by Dung, but it was, alas, to prove futile. Long standing party regulations on the matter forced him to retire from the contest, leaving Trong home and dry in pursuit of the party’s crown jewel. Furthermore, Dung is now officially off the scene, having reached the compulsory age of retirement; even though Trong, several years his senior, has somehow managed to extend his position of authority for another term.
Beijing may believe it has got precisely what it wanted from the congress, but would do well to reassess its relationship with Hanoi. Dung has indeed been forced off the scene, but the current zeitgeist is very much a legacy of what the former PM brought to the nation’s door; the TPP is still going ahead, as is the newly formed ASEAN Economic Community. Consequently, certain liberalizations are being necessarily introduced as part of those agreements – liberalizations which are more likely to evolve than simply be maintained. Most importantly, however, with the majority of Vietnam’s youth firmly in favor of a less servile relationship with China, it may simply be a matter of waiting for the old guard’s numbers to thin to the extent that a new Vietnam is able to take shape. China’s influence may still be intact for the moment, but it has far steeper challenges ahead.