By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser & Director of the Southeast Asia Program, CSIS
Last week, the Communist Party of Vietnam announced its new leadership line up as it wrapped up the 11th National Party Congress. The outcome underlined a fundamental commitment to continuity in its national security, economic reform and foreign policy. Understandably, some highly credible Southeast Asia analysts were caught up in the more conservative rhetoric that traditionally surrounds the five-year cycle of intra-Party politicking in Vietnam. Notably, CFR’s Josh Kurlantzick detected a more hard-line regime, “not exactly a step forward” on his blog. The truth is the Party knows it must stick with economic reform, a strong investment in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and closer ties with the United States.
General Secretary, nominally the top job in the Party, went to 67-year old former National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Phu Trong. A Hanoi-born stalwart of the Party, Trong indicated that he expects to continue the recent tradition of the General Secretary not having a direct or strong hand in decisions of the Government. Importantly, 62-year old Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was recommended for a second term and fellow 62-year old southerner Truong Tan Sang was tapped as the candidate to be President. Standing Deputy Prime Minister and former finance minister 65-year old Nguyen Sinh Hung will be chairman of the National Assembly. These leaders must be approved by the National Assembly when it convenes in late April or early May, and they will put forward a new cabinet that will be vetted and approved by the National Assembly in the third quarter of 2011.
The new leadership team is committed to economic reform. Proof of this was given in November 2010 when Vietnam, in the midst of pre-Party Congress conclaves, decided affirmatively to join the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) trade negotiations as a full member. They had been observers, and had to make a choice whether to join and commit the country to further economic reforms via the legally binding process being developed in the TPP, or to step away. Vietnam believes its national security is closely tied to strong economic growth, economic integration with ASEAN and international partners, and stronger ties with the United States and other international partners. A key driver of this calculus is balancing an ascendant China, which has stepped up competition with Vietnam for hearts and minds in Laos and throughout mainland Southeast Asia, and applied very direct pressure through its positioning in the South China Sea.
I respectfully disagree with my friend Josh Kurtlantzick at CFR. Vietnam has not taken a step backward on reform and ties to the United States. It is doubling down on its commitment to continue economic reform, and it recognizes it must make progress on key areas such as human rights, religious freedom, and opening its political system as it moves forward in areas such as normalizing military-to-military relations with the United States. These social and political changes will be slower and more nuanced than the economic changes, but they are in the works in Vietnam.
U.S. Department of Defense photo by R.D. Ward in the public domain.