The Challenge of Generational Change in Vietnam

By Nguyen Quang Dy, Harvard Nieman Fellow and Former Vietnamese Diplomat

The Vietnamese Communist Party has settled on a new leadership for the next five years. Analyst Nguyễn Quang Dy asks is it the right team for the challenges ahead?

A transition of power is never easy in any country. Vietnam is no exception. The just-concluded 13th Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam has chosen a new team to lead the nation over the next five years. But far from reinvigorating national leadership to meet the manifold strategic, human security, and economic challenges that loom on the horizon, the party proved unable to engineer a promised generation shift.

The Congress started on 25 January and “successfully concluded” on 1 February, about one day earlier than scheduled, because of “mission accomplished” and a fresh outbreak of COVID-19.

One of the main missions of the Congress was to install a new Politburo: 1,600 delegates voted for 200 Central Committee members who in turn elected 18 Politburo members. The top jobs were filled by Nguyen Phu Trong, 76, who remains General Secretary; Nguyen Xuan Phuc, 66, who leaves his job as Prime Minister for State President; Pham Minh Chinh, 62, who jumps from Central Organisation Commission chief to Prime Minister; and Vuong Dinh Hue, 63, Hanoi Party Chief and former Deputy Prime Minister who becomes Chairman of the National Assembly. These “four pillars” will ostensibly lead Vietnam until 2026. These appointments are expected to be confirmed during a National Assembly session in the Spring.

Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Donald Trump
Former Prime Minister, now-President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, with former US President Donald Trump at the Office of Government Hall, Hanoi, Vietnam - February 27, 2019. Image credit: Trump White House Archives, Flickr.

But instead of producing “the right men for the right job” in a rejuvenised leadership for the challenging strategic and economic environment that lie ahead, the selection of this “four-pillar” power structure was reduced to a game of musical chairs. Nguyen Xuan Phuc was a dynamic Prime Minister. Unfortunately, he has been kicked upstairs to a largely ceremonial role as State President. He is succeeded by party apparatchik Pham Minh Chinh, not by Vuong Dinh Hue, an experienced and able DPM, who is now waiting in the wings as Chairman of the National Assembly, possibly to eventually replace Trong as General Secretary.

The result is a “grand compromise” born out of “structural and factional factors”. As University of New South Wales Professor Carl Thayer puts it, “the default position in Vietnam’s political system is always stability and a balance between competing factions” – the party wing represented by Nguyen Phu Trong and the government wing represented by Nguyen Xuan Phuc. The structural factors are found in the party’s sclerotic system for selecting leadership candidates; the factional factors are evident in the way competing wings of the party and government balanced each other out by cross posting their candidates.

As a consequence, Vietnam is left with a relatively weak transitional leadership at a time when the country needs an effective government to deal with a plethora of urgent problems. Trong — as party General Secretary the most powerful member of the quadripartite leadership — was prepared to retire.  But he failed in a bid to promote his protégé and chief of the Party secretariat, Tran Quoc Vuong. This means the aging and ailing Trong will serve a third term, leaving time to strengthen the hand of his preferred successor.

To stay on, Trong required a special waiver to the party age limit of 65 for top positions. But it is an open question whether Trong will complete another five years in office. There is an informal understanding that if a consensus is reached on his successor, Trong will step down before completing his term. Still, Trong was strong enough to call the shots at this Congress, bending party rules and manoeuvring to get support from party apparatchiks. He is expected to carry on the government’s anti-corruption campaign and manage the power transition.

Nguyen Phu Trong
General Secretary of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong on a state visit to Cuba - April 8, 2012. Image credit: Cubadebate, Flickr.

From a national policy perspective, one consequence of the leadership manoeuvreing is to potentially open the door to better relations with Beijing. Xi Jinping was the first head of state to send Hanoi his warm greetings. Part of the reason is that the new Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh is the former party chief of Quang Ninh province, which borders Ha Long Bay. In that post, he was instrumental in the declaration of a special economic zone (SEZ) for Chinese investors, with the help of Chinese officials, in the district of Van Don. But the anticipated passage of the enacting legislation provoked strong protests across the country in 2018, forcing the National Assembly to “delay indefinitely” the unpopular bill.

Another hint of policy direction relates to the fate of Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, who was re-elected to the Central Committee, but not elevated to the Politburo as expected, despite serving for 15 years as Deputy Prime Minister. He has been an effective head of the National Steering Committee for COVID-19 Prevention. This will disappoint advocates of good governance and overdue institutional reform.

“Don’t expect any big change in the direction of Vietnam foreign policy or economic policy in the next five years,” says Professor Alexander Vuving of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.  “Basically, it signifies to me the failure of the party chief. He needed to pass the baton to another conservative candidate, but his choice was not popular among the Central Committee members. He is the last conservative to become general secretary. It will loosen up after he is gone as a transitional leader”.

While the Communist Party grapples with leadership transition, there is a raft of critical issues that won’t wait. Growing tensions in the South China Sea have pushed Vietnam to seek closer ties with the US. Hanoi’s defence cooperation with Washington has expanded significantly in recent years, although Trong failed to visit Washington in October 2019 as planned. Like many others, Hanoi had an awkward relationship with the Trump administration – it welcomed the more robust US strategic position on China, but confronted US complaints over the size of the trade balance in Vietnam’s favour.

It is important that Hanoi forges a strong relationship with the Biden administration. Hanoi had been favourably impressed by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s firm rejection of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, and would appreciate the continuation of this policy. Hanoi’s latest Defence White Paper has left the door open for deeper security cooperation with the US, if China ups the ante in the South China Sea.

Moreover, ASEAN and Vietnam want to see the US restore its diplomatic profile in the Indo-Pacific by presidential participation in the East Asia Summit. A strong signal would be the elevation of the US-Vietnam comprehensive partnership to the status of strategic partnership, and stronger US-ASEAN strategic partnership.

Still, there is nothing straightforward about the strategic calculus. Vietnam has been a beneficiary of the US-China trade war – supply chains have been rerouted from China to Vietnam, boosting its GDP growth to 2.9 percent. And under the Biden administration, relations between Washington and Hanoi could face potential problems, including over Hanoi’s human right record, US charges of currency manipulation, and arms deals with Russia in violation of US sanctions legislation.

The success of Vietnam’s half-hearted leadership transition will be put to the test in managing this complex array of international issues, even as it struggles with the tougher post-COVID economic environment and the immediate challenge of keeping the pandemic at bay. So far, Hanoi has been applauded for the job it has done at least on the health front. But as the Communist Party Congress was in progress, there was a new COVID-19 outbreak in the provinces of Hai Duong and Quang Ninh, less than 160 km east of Hanoi. The virus was identified as a new variant, spreading more rapidly than the outbreak in Da Nang last July. Within a few days, hundreds of people had been infected.

Despite his waning health and influence, Trong managed to call the shots at this Party Congress. While there are some signs of a possible change in policy orientation, the process might be too little too late. Events around the world are moving very fast, producing greater uncertainty and risks for governments everywhere, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic and strategic repercussions have shattered the illusion of Western superiority. The US and EU have been among the hardest hit countries. Vietnam will need nimble and energetic leadership to ensure it avoids the same fate.

Nguyễn Quang Dy is a Harvard Nieman Fellow (1993) and retired Vietnamese diplomat. He is now an independent researcher and freelance journalist based in Hanoi.

Banner image: Ho Chi Minh City skyline. Credit: Peter Nguyen, Unsplash.