Shadow of Vietnam’s Political System Hangs over Party Leader’s Planned Visit to the United States

By Nguyen Manh Hung

Party General Secretary of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong, right, meets President Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank Group in Hanoi during July 2014. Source: World Bank Photo Collection's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Party General Secretary of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong, right, meets President Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank Group in Hanoi during July 2014. Source: World Bank Photo Collection’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

The visit of Nguyen Phu Trong to the United States, if it takes place as planned, will be unprecedented. He would be the first secretary general of the Communist Party of Vietnam and the country’s top leader to ever visit the United States. Yet, the peculiarity of Vietnam’s political system will probably deprive him of the weight and ceremony normally accorded such a high-level visit.

Vietnam’s political system is similar to other communist countries, but it differs from them in some crucial aspects which create certain protocol and policymaking problems in Vietnam’s dealings with foreign countries.

Like in other remaining communist countries, the party is “the force leading the state and society,” stands above the nation’s constitution, and its secretary general is, theoretically, the top leader of the nation.

In other communist countries such as China, Cuba, Laos, and North Korea, the head of the party is also the head of state, but this is not the case in Vietnam. This creates a protocol problem when the Vietnamese party head travels abroad, especially to western democratic countries where political parties are part of and under the state, and the nation’s constitution is above party activities. As a result, Trong’s visits cannot be accorded the status of state visits with full symbolic and substantive policy implications.

In many communist states, basic state policies are set by the politburo theoretically through consensus, but, in practice, a strong man always emerges and exercises almost absolute control over decision-making process. His policy preferences tend to become the nation’s policies and his promises the commitment of the nation.

In Vietnam, the secretary general is not actually the strong man. His decision-making power must be balanced by the policy preferences and interests of three other leaders: the chairman of the national assembly which represents “the highest state power,” the prime minister who exercises executive power and controls the executive branch, and the state president, who represents Vietnam internally and externally. The president also has the power to recommend to the national assembly the election and removal from office both the vice president and the prime minister and, based on resolutions of the national assembly, to appoint or dismiss deputy prime ministers, ministers, and other members of the government. The president, not the secretary general, is also the commander of the armed forces, chairs the National Security and Defense Council and has the power to appoint, promote, and dismiss top ranking military officers.

In Vietnam, there is a clear gap between official authority and actual influence. In theory, the power of the prime minister should be less than that of the party’s secretary general but, because of his power bases, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has more usable power than that of Secretary General Trong. Some Vietnamese officials argue that this set up introduces a certain degree of plurality and checks and balance in Vietnamese politics.

In fact, Vietnam does not have a system of balance of powers where each position is given clear power to make decisions. Instead of a balance of power, Vietnam has a system of balance of personalities between “t tr” (four centers of power). The personal rivalries between the top four leaders makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Vietnam to come up with pro-active, decisive, and timely policies when needed to cope with challenges the country faces and seize the opportunities presented to it.

For example, internal dissension resulted in Vietnam’s failure to conclude its bilateral trade agreement with the United States in 1999 before China acceded to the World Trade Organization (WTO). This meant that Vietnam could not join the WTO for six years and under far more difficult conditions than China joined the organization. More rapid decision making about increasing defense and security cooperation with the United States, particularly if it had happened before China became more militarily powerful and aggressive in the South China Sea, could have spared Vietnam the current agony of choosing sides and would have strengthened its position in dealing with China.

Unless serious pre-trip negotiations are conducted between Hanoi and Washington before the party leader’s visit around the middle of this year, it is difficult to imagine that Trong will carry with him an important message to create a breakthrough in bilateral relations. Otherwise, it is likely that the visit will be more symbolic than substantive and not result in pushing Vietnam-U.S. relations to a deeper level.

Dr. Nguyen Manh Hung is professor emeritus of government and international relations at George Mason University, and a non-resident senior associate with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.

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