Will Vietnam tilt toward China under a Xi-like leader?
OpinionGeopolitics Will Vietnam tilt toward China under a Xi-like leader? October 25, 2018 11:11 PM (UTC+8)
Xi Jinping has long been dubbed as Chinaâs CoE or âChairman of Everything.â In some respects, this can now be said of Nguyen Phu Trong, Xiâs Vietnamese communist counterpart. Even so, Trongâs influence in Vietnam wonât be as overriding and long-lasting as Xiâs in China.
Trong, who has been general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) since 2011, officially became Vietnamâs president following a rubber-stamp vote and an orchestrated swearing-in ceremony at the National Assembly, the one-party stateâs parliament, on October 23.The dailyReport Must-reads from across Asia - directly to your inbox
The 74-year old, the only candidate on the ballot to succeed Tran Dai Quang, who died last month after a serious illness, received an overwhelming vote (99.79%) from 477 lawmakers with only one (perhaps himself) objecting. He almost matched Xi, who was unanimously elected Chinese president in March this year
In myriad ways, Trong, the first Vietnamese leader to hold the two top posts since founding president and revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, is now Vietnamâs Xi Jinping.
Though the role of president in the Southeast Asian nation is largely ceremonial, it gives him considerable powers, both in theory and practice. Under Vietnamâs constitution, he is the head of state and represents the country of 93 million people both in domestic and foreign affairs.
Among other duties and powers, he promulgates the constitution, laws and ordinances, and as such, he chairs the central steering committee for judicial reform. He is als o the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the ex officio chair of the Council for National Defense and Security. Thatâs why the presidency is seen as the second highest office after party chief â" or at least one of the so-called âfour pillarsâ of Vietnamâs power and politics â" the other two being prime minister and parliament chairperson.
Like Xi, Trong is now head of the party, state and army. Whatâs more, like the former, the Marxist ideologue is the unrivaled leader in Vietnam as nobody â" or even any faction â" in the all-powerful Politburo can match him in terms of seniority, experience and, indeed, power. He became a Politburo member in 1997, while other remaining members joined this top decision-making body in either 2011, 2013 or 2016.
This raises concerns in some quarters that the country may go back to the strongman rule it experienced under Le Duan, who ruled with absolute power from 1960 until his death in 1986.
In fact, to avo id such a one-man rule, the CPV opted for a consensus leadership at its 6th National Congress in 1986, when the party also initiated the Doi Moi (renovation) policy, consequently transforming the country.
Ever since, the collective leadership has been the regimeâs core modus operandi, with the party chief being primus inter pares. Yet, when Nguyen Tan Dung was prime minister (from 2006 to 2016), especially during his second term, from 2011 to 2016, it was him, not the party head, that was first among equals. In those years, not only did Dung totally control the government he led but also had far-reaching influence over other state and party bodies, including the partyâs 200-strong Central Committee.
Partly because he was overshadowed by Dung and partly because he wanted to eliminate the formerâs individualist leadership style, during his first term as party chief, Trong tried, by various means, to sideline his rival. Though he suffered some sign ificant, if not humiliating, defeats during those years, he successfully forced Dung to retire at the CPVâs 12th Congress in January 2016, while retaining his position, even though he had passed the retirement age and Dung was five years his junior.
Ironically, when Dung was so popular that many thought he could not only replace Trong at the 2016 congress but also get himself elected president after becoming party chief, Trong opposed the idea of unifying the two positions because, in his view, the merger would put too much power in one personâs hands that nobody could control.
Just like Xi, Trong is very concerned about the partyâs survival and legitimacy and seeks to clean the corrupt regime by launching a huge anti-graft fight. Like his Chinese comradeâs aggressive campaign against corruption, his was seen as partly aimed at attacking and eliminating political foes.
However, Trongâs power consolidation doesnât generate as much apprehension in Viet nam as Xiâs power grab did in China.
Xi amassed extraordinary power at the National Congress of the Communist Party of China â" aka Xi Jinpingâs congress â" last October, making some call him ânothing less than Chairman of Everything, Everywhere and Everyone.â As the two-term limit was removed from the Chinese constitution and he was appointed as president with no term limit in March, he likely stays in power for decades, even for life.
It remains unclear, however, whether Trong will stay beyond the CPVâs 13th Congress, scheduled to take place in 2021. Whatâs also very unlikely, if not unthinkable, is that the regimeâs former chief ideologue will develop his own ideology and get it enshrined in the partyâs charter and the countryâs constitution as Xi did with his âXi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.â
Some in Vietnam even support the unification of the party chief and state president roles because th e government, both national and local, is too large, too expensive and too ineffective due to too much overlapping and duplicating of function.
Also, as it is a collective, consensus-based leadership, the Vietnamese sometimes get frustrated because they donât know exactly who is the principal person behind a certain policy or the countryâs overall direction.
Trong has long been perceived as a dogmatic conservative, that leads the pro-China faction.
On October 21, the Chinese state-run Global Times ran an op-ed that said, Trong âwill undertake more diplomatic activities as the countryâs president.â The article, entitled âWill Vietnam toe US line on South China Sea?â, also commented about US Defense Secretary James Mattisâs recent Vietnam visit, which it said, âmight aim at finding out the real diplomatic intentions of Hanoi [under Trongâs consolidated leadership vis-Ã -vis the maritime issue].â
It then asserted, âVietnam is unwillin g to submit to become a pawn of Americaâ and gave a number of reasons for that. One is that Trong âprefers stable, pragmatic and China-friendly policies, so the US and other Western countries are worried about pro-China political moderates dominate Vietnamâs diplomacy.â
With little doubt, maintaining stability is Trongâs top priority. But whether he will pursue âChina-friendly policiesâ or whether the âpro-Chinaâ faction will dictate Vietnamâs foreign policy remains unclear
With little doubt, maintaining stability is Trongâs top priority. But whether he will pursue âChina-friendly policiesâ or whether the âpro-Chinaâ faction will dictate Vietnamâs foreign policy remains unclear. This is something that not just the US and other Western nations but the Vietnamese themselves certainly â" and perhaps, nervously â" wait to see in the months to come.
While the commentary in the Global Times is right to say â Vietnam is unwilling to submit to become a pawn of Americaâ â" or any country, its wording is excessive, unnecessary and even insulting.
The US and Vietnam are (comprehensive) partners, that â" as stressed in a Joint Vision Statement issued during Trongâs unprecedented trip to America in 2015 â" respect âeach otherâs political systems, independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.â
In his remarks after a meeting with the then-US President Barack Obama at the White House, Trong, the first CPVâs chief to have traveled to Washington, revealed that the two leaders âdiscussed and shared our views on the recent developments in the South China Sea, and also shared our concern about the recent activities that are not in accordance with international law that may complicate the situation.â
In a televised address to the Vietnamese people during his state visit a year later, Obama said, âVietnam is an independent, sovereign nation, and no othe r nation can impose its will on you or decide your destiny.â Such remarks incited a raucous round of applause from the audience present, mostly young people.
In his remarks at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Da Nang and a joint press conference with (now deceased) president Tran Dai Quang in Hanoi last November, Obamaâs successor, Donald Trump, was even more explicit, stating that the US is committed to âa free and open Indo-Pacific, where strong, independent nations respect each otherâs sovereigntyâ and wants its âpartners in the Indo-Pacific to be proud and self-reliant, not proxies or satellites.â
Though they didnât mention China by name, both Obama and Trump implicitly but pointedly implied China, Vietnamâs giant neighbor with whom it has long been locked in territorial disputes over both the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. For this reason, their comments resonated very well with Vietnamâs leaders and p eople.
The Global Timesâ op-ed isnât wrong to say that Vietnam âwants to cozy up with the US to latch on to its activities in the South China Sea and oppose China building islands.â
Indeed, Beijingâs aggressiveness in both its claims and actions, including its island-building and military build-up activities in the disputed sea, has pushed Vietnam closer to the US in recent years as it aligns with the latter on the South China Sea issue.
In March, the USS Carl Vinson, made a five-day port call to Da Nang, becoming the first US aircraft carrier to have docked in Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975.
In their joint statements in recent years, including the 2017 one, the leaders of the two countries, âunderscored the strategic importance to the international community of free and open access to the South China Seaâ and âthe need to respect freedom of navigation and over-flight, and other lawful uses of the sea.â
More imp ortantly, they âreaffirmed their shared commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes.â China remains opposed to such a settlement because, in 2016, a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea tribunal invalidated many of Beijingâs contentious claims and actions in the area.
Vietnam also has strong economic interests in forging closer ties with the US and other Western or advanced countries and a key reason for this is so that it doesnât rely too much on its giant northern neighbor politically and economically.
A robust trade deal between Vietnam and the European Union was stalled for a while due to the blocâs concerns over Hanoiâs human rights record. But, on October 17, the European Commission approved it, paving the way for the signing and ratification of it in the months to come.
Trong is likely to travel to the US this year because Hanoi is seeking a trade deal with the latter, which was until last year its biggest export market.
While their leaders, such as Trong, may want to maintain a balanced relationship with both the US and China and are unlikely to take sides, the Vietnamese prefer the former to the latter. According to Pew Research Centerâs surveys, in 2014, 76% of Vietnamese viewed the US positively. That increased to 86% in 2017. By comparison, only 10% of the Vietnamese public viewed China favorably last year.
Taken together, for all the political and ideological similarities between the two communist neighbors and between Trong and Xi, as well as his seemingly pro-China leaning, it is doubtful that under Trongâs enhanced leadership, Hanoi will adopt âChina-friendly policiesâ that explicitly favor China over the US.Asia Times is not responsible for the opinions, facts or any media content presented by contributors. In case of abuse, click here to report. Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include Vietnamâs domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN, EU, UKâs politics and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region. continue readingSource: Google News Vietnam | Netizen 24 Vietnam