A Window of Opportunity for Reforms in Vietnam

Vietnam's cautious, conservative leader may be authoritarian, but cannot ignore public opinion on US or China
February 7, 2016 Updated: February 9, 2016

NEW YORK—As the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam prepared for its five-year national congress, suspense built over who would take over the party’s helm. When the curtain was finally lifted on Jan. 25, supporters of populist Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung were disappointed that he lost the coveted post to conservative incumbent chief Nguyen Phu Trong, who was given a second term.

The sidelining of Dung, who has been accused of nepotism, cronyism, and economic mismanagement, is unlikely to change the middle course traditionally preferred by the party. Reforms will continue, albeit at a slower pace, as would increasingly closer ties with the United States.

The reason for the pro-Dung public sentiment is not hard to fathom. In a country where the masses have not ceased railing against China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, leaders who exhibit explicit gestures to confront Beijing are likely to win the public heart.

When China dragged its oil rig into an area that Vietnam considers part of its exclusive economic zone in May 2014, Dung was outspoken in publicly lashing out at China’s territorial ambitions. He is also a visible champion of economic reforms and strategic alliances with other regional powers, particularly the United States, moves apparently aimed at countering China’s economic clout.

Economically, Vietnam is on the upswing and remains a darling of the international business community.

Economically, Vietnam is on the upswing and remains a darling of the international business community. Economic growth notched a five-year high of 6.7 percent last year with foreign investment peaking at $14.5 billion. Despite talk of wooing investment, Indonesia remains a difficult place for investors. Thailand saw foreign investment fall by 78 percent in 2015. In Malaysia, too, the economy is contracting because of political instability amid corruption allegations involving Prime Minister Najib Razak.

This is the context for Vietnam in grasping an incredible window of opportunity should it deepen its commitment to reforms. For many, if Dung could cling to power, perhaps reforms would move at a faster pace and other policies would be more pragmatic. Those in the pro-Dung camp also claim that Vietnam under the leadership of Trong, not only ideologically conservative but also cautious, is less poised to capitalize on such opportunities.

Dung being sidelined does not mean the new leadership will either shun reforms or kowtow to China.

In a country that has taken the leadership-by-consensus approach to bread-and-butter issues, though Vietnam’s economic and foreign policies will not fundamentally change. Dung being sidelined does not mean the new leadership will either shun reforms or kowtow to China.

Dung’s critics have dismissed his anti-China rhetoric as political maneuvering aimed at currying public favor, and they blame him for compounding Vietnam’s entrenched economic dependence on China. On the contrary, Trong’s sympathizers say he is not as soft on China as he may appear to be.

The bottom line is that the U-turn in public support for Dung to become the top leader epitomizes the burning desire of the masses to see Vietnam escape the Chinese orbit, paving the way for rapprochement with the United States.

More than a thousand years of occupation and three deadly wars in the 1970s and 1980s provide the historic context for the anti-China sentiment that runs deep in Vietnam. Given the longer periods of French colonialism and Chinese aggression against Vietnam, and given U.S. strategic importance in the world after 1975, it should come as no surprise that the Vietnamese people are ready to put the past behind them more quickly with the United States.

Regardless of who is in power, Vietnamese leaders must take stock of increased political, economic, and military ties with the United States, possibly at the expense of relations with China—which would beg consideration of major questions:

  • From a Vietnamese perspective, can the United States be trusted to stick with Vietnam if China persists with aggressive behavior? Or are the Americans too bogged down in the Middle East and disenchanted with foreign adventures? Could the United States cut a deal with China that sells out Vietnam’s interests?

  • From an American perspective, does the United States really want to get in a fight with China? And does Vietnam warrant U.S. friendship and support? Is it a country striving to be more like the United States, or is it going to remain a country where Communist dictators abuse their own citizens?

Bilateral ties are hampered by mistrust, disputes over human rights, and the U.S. wartime legacy.

Despite 20 years since normalization, bilateral ties have been hampered by lingering mistrust, disputes over human rights, and the U.S. wartime legacy. But when President Barack Obama met Vietnam’s Communist Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong last July, he spoke of moving beyond the “difficult history” of the Vietnam War and joining forces to deter China, which is increasingly flexing its political and economic muscles in the region.

A week before the Communist Party Congress opened, Ted Osius, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, said at a conference in Ho Chi Minh City that two events in 2015 demonstrated the relationship’s transformation—the landmark visit of Nguyen Phu Trong to Washington and the conclusion of negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious U.S.-led regional free trade agreement.

Vietnam has been gung-ho to join the TPP, and when the nation expressed interest several years ago, few thought they were serious or capable of making the necessary reforms or facing major challenges, including protection of intellectual property rights and hence the profits of pharmaceutical corporations at the expense of public health or the investor state dispute-settlement mechanism granting corporations the right to sue a foreign government.

But on top of that, labor rights in the TPP are emblematic of the Vietnamese compromise, and the trade agreement crystallizes how far the country’s leaders are willing to go to secure a deeper economic relationship with the United States. No country had to do more to enter the TPP than Vietnam. Like the United States, Vietnam sees the TPP as a strategic political instrument, not just a trade agreement.

Vietnam sees the TPP as a strategic political instrument and not just a trade agreement.

A few in Vietnam still hold a grudge against the United States and some feel that the United States at least has an obligation to make war-reparations. But the proportion of the people in that camp pales in comparison with those who believe that Vietnam will benefit from improved relations, in particular U.S. trade and investment. This sentiment is amplified by the relative youth of the population, with most born after the war.

The leadership, while authoritarian, no longer can ignore such public sentiment. The one-party state is increasingly accountable to the public and, through monitoring of social media, very aware of public sentiment.

Despite the jockeying for power that may have happened behind closed door, Vietnam’s new leadership eventually appeared as a united front to the public. As the country’s reigning top leader, it would be unwise for Nguyen Phu Trong to dwell on savoring his ability to dispose of Nguyen Tan Dung. Instead, he should ponder on how his once arch-rival made a U-turn in winning the public heart—Dung’s explicit gesture to stand up to China in favor of improved U.S. relations.

At the end of the day, no matter how authoritarian a regime may be, public support is the sine qua non to its very survival. Without such support, the leadership of the Vietnam Communist Party will be on edge.

Dien Luong is Vietnamese journalist who is completing a master’s degree at Columbia Journalism School in New York on a Fulbright scholarship. Copyright © 2016 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center. This article was originally published on YaleGlobal Online.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.