Việt Nam’s China factor

The Việt Nam Communist Party (VCP) is scheduled to hold its next national party congress in early 2016.

There are signs, however, that consensus has not been reached on a number of issues including the South China Sea, relations with China and the selection of Việt Nam’s future leadership.

This could result in a rescheduling of the congress until a later date.

Việt Nam holds national party congresses every five years.

A typical conference lasts five days and is attended by around 1400 party delegates representing Việt Nam’s 63 administrative units (58 provinces and five centrally-controlled municipalities), party organisations in the central government, and the Việt Nam People’s Army.

A national party congress has five main duties:

It approves the party Secretary General’s Political Report, adopts Việt Nam’s Socio-Economic Plan for the next five and 10 years (2016-2025), revises the party’s platform, amends Party Statutes and, most importantly, elects the new Central Committee.

This year a new rule was introduced that curtailed the powers of party delegates in selecting members of the new Central Committee.

In the past party delegates were entitled to nominate from the floor of congress additional candidates for selection to the Central Committee to the official list approved by senior party leaders.

At the last party congress several persons nominated by party delegates were elected to the Central Committee.

At the 12th National Congress all candidates for the new Central Committee must be approved by the outgoing Central Committee before their names are placed on ballot papers.

On the last day of the congress the new Central Committee will hold its first plenary meeting and elect the new Politburo and then select one of the Politburo members as party Secretary General.

The Central Committee is required by Party Statutes to convene at least twice a year and it is not uncommon for the Central Committee to meet more often.

However, in 2014 the Central Committee met only once.

This was most likely a sign of deep divisions over South China Sea policy and relations with China following the crisis over Beijing’s deployment of a mega oil-drilling platform in disputed waters during May-July.

Party_CongressViệt Nam holds national party congresses every five years

Preparations for the 12th National Party Congress have been very muted compared to the past eight congresses held since reunification.

The Vietnamese media has been extremely quiet and reports are only just beginning to appear that confirm preparations for the congress are proceeding.

No dates have been officially announced.

Normally draft policy documents such as the Political Report and Socio-Economic Plan would have been quietly released to special focus groups for discussion and comment.

After fine tuning the draft policy documents would then be released to the public for comment.

For example, the draft Political Report and the ten-year Socio-Economic Report for the 11th National Party Congress held in January 2011 were released on April 20, 2010 or nine months prior to the congress.

If the 12th National Congress is to meet early next year Vietnam has only four months to complete this process.

It is also significant the VCP Central Committee, which met in January, has not yet held its second meeting for the year. In March, Vietnamese defence sources privately revealed to the author that the new Defence White Paper, due for release this year, will be postponed until after the 12th Congress.

What explains these developments – unusually quiet preparations for the national congress, delay in holding a meeting of the VCP Central Committee, and postponement of the Defence White Paper?

The most likely explanation is an overlap of two contentious issues – the China factor (President/General Secretary Xi Jinping reportedly will visit Hà Nội in October or November) and the selection of Việt Nam’s new leadership.

Current VCP rules do not permit a person to hold more than two terms in office.

VCP rules also require officials to retire at the age of 65.

Taking both rules into account nine members of the current sixteen-member Politburo should retire at next year’s congress.

This means that Việt Nam’s President Trương Tấn Sang, Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng and Secretary General Nguyễn Phú Trọng, among others, will retire from their current posts.

However, there is an exemption to the mandatory age retirement in special cases.

It is strongly rumoured that Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng is seeking to become the next party Secretary General and will ask for an exemption.

This is unprecedented in Vietnamese politics.

Dũng would bring unparalleled economic and international experience to the post of party Secretary General as a result of his two terms as prime minster.

Dũng is not likely to let ideology bind his hands in dealing with China.

He was outspoken during last year’s oil rig crisis in defending Vietnamese sovereignty and raising the possibility of taking international legal action against China.

Dũng has widespread support among the members of the Central Committee but the current Politburo is deeply divided.

Not only are personal rivalries at play, but there are differences over how to manage relations with China and the United States.

Việt Nam expects to host visits by both Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama later this year.

While the 12th National Congress is not expected to alter significantly Việt Nam’s current policy of proactive international integration, the question of Việt Nam’s future leadership is still in the balance.

CARLYLE A THAYER (*)

(*) Carlyle A Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra

Source: Policy Forum

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