Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang. Photo: Reuters
Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang. Photo: Reuters

Partly due to his prolonged and serious illness, Tran Dai Quang, who died on Friday, did not have a very positive impact on Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policies during his two-and-a-half-year tenure as the country’s president.

However, he did do a few remarkable things to raise Vietnam’s image and interests on the world stage. One of these was probably his speech at the 38th Singapore Lecture, organized by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) and chaired by Singapore’s deputy prime minister and coordinating minister for national security, Teo Chee Hean, during his state visit to Singapore – and his maiden overseas trip as Vietnam’s head of state – in August 2016.

In that speech, the first such by a Vietnamese leader, he said: “In addition to opportunities and advantages, the world is faced also with many grave difficulties and challenges” that included “disputes over resources [and] territorial and maritime disputes.” He asserted, “The seriousness of these challenges is extremely worrying as long as the ‘might makes right’ mindset and the resort to the use of force still exist.”

Zooming in on the South China Sea, he said, “Located at the heart of Southeast Asia,” this resources-rich and strategically vital sea “not only brings about many important benefits to nations in the region but is also a vital route for maritime and air transport of the world.”

He added, “Yet, recent worrying developments” there “have had a negative impact on the security environment of the region, especially maritime security and safety, freedom of navigation and overflight.”

He then told the audience, which included Singapore’s former prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, and other high-ranking officials, “Should we allow instability to take place, especially in the case of armed conflicts, there will be neither winners or losers but rather all will lose.”

By that time, China had massively developed and weaponized disputed islands, raising alarms in many countries in and outside the region.

About six weeks before Quang’s intervention, an arbitral tribunal formed under the auspices of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) had invalidated many of China’s claims and actions in the disputed waters. Beijing had, however, rejected the legally binding ruling and used its new-found economic and political clout to discredit the international tribunal and its landmark award.

Thus, though Quang did not mention China or any other country by name, his remarks were aimed at Beijing’s aggressive activities in the South China Sea and its might-makes-right approach to the maritime disputes in particular.

Most importantly, in such a high-profile speech, he clearly and firmly stated Vietnam’s “consistent position” vis-à-vis “the East Sea [Vietnam’s name for the South China Sea] issue” – that is “to remain resolute and persistent in the defense of national independence, sovereignty and territorial unity and integrity” and “to settle disputes by peaceful means through the political, diplomatic and legal process on the basis of international law, including [UNCLOS].”

Again, such remarks were mainly aimed at China and, undoubtedly, did not resonate well in Beijing. Vietnam is locked in disputes with its giant neighbor over both the Paracels and the Spratlys. China remains opposed to any political, diplomatic and legal solution to the disputes based on international law, including UNCLOS, because, as the UNCLOS-based arbitral tribunal ruled, there is “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources” within its so-called “nine-dash line,” which covers almost all the South China Sea.

In line with what Quang said in his Singapore lecture, in a Vietnam-Singapore joint statement issued at the end of his visit, both sides “emphasized the importance of resolving disputes peacefully, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with international law, including as reflected in the 1982 (UNCLOS).”

In a message of condolence to his counterpart, the Communist Party of Vietnam’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, China’s Xi Jinping said he was “deeply saddened” by Quang’s passing. He called Vietnam’s late president “a close comrade and friend of the Chinese people” as he “committed himself to inheriting and carrying forward the China-Vietnam traditional friendship.”

This is somehow understandable because Hanoi regards ties with his comrades in Beijing as a top priority, and like any other Vietnamese leader, Quang had to cultivate bilateral cooperation.

The last foreign dignitary Quang received – on Wednesday, just two days before his death – was Zhou Qiang, China’s chief justice and president of the Supreme People’s Court. In that meeting, Quang and Zhou pledged to further enhance judicial cooperation between the two countries.

Quang, Vietnam’s second most important leader after party chief  Trong, made a state visit to China in May 2017. During that five-day trip, besides attending the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, he also had talks with President Xi and met with China’s other top three leaders – namely Premier Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the National People’s Congress, and Yu Zhengsheng, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Yet, though he was warmly received by the Chinese leadership, they may not have forgotten his Singapore lecture, which was, in many respects, seen as a rebuke to Beijing’s South China Sea posture.

Trong, who has already become the most powerful party leader in decades, will now have a bigger say in Vietnam’s key personnel decisions and its overall direction over the next two years or even beyond

As for Quang, about two months after that China trip, things turned badly for him. As head of state, his main duties were, among others, to welcome foreign leaders and dignitaries, host diplomatic events, visit foreign countries and attend international meetings. However, he completely disappeared from public life for several weeks and this raised speculation about his health.

When he reappeared to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang and other world leaders, including US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Hanoi, in November, he looked unusually thin and pale – completely different from the healthy Quang that appeared in China six months earlier.

Images and footage from his public engagements last week, including meetings with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, Cuban Vice President Salvador Antonio Valdes Mesa and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, showed he was even frailer. When hosting a welcoming ceremony for Widodo, who made the first trip to Vietnam since becoming Indonesia’s president in 2014, Quang appeared unsteady on his feet.

Speaking to VnExpress, a popular state-run online newspaper, following his passing, Nguyen Quoc Trieu, head of the national board responsible for the health of the country’s senior leaders, said Quang had, in fact, fallen ill in July 2017 and traveled to Japan six times for treatment. Trieu also revealed that the former police general had contracted a rare and toxic virus that could only be managed, not cured.

In addition to his poor health, other developments did not go well for him. Some officials from the influential Ministry of Public Security, which he had led for five years before becoming president, were investigated and charged with corruption in an anti-graft campaign launched and led by Trong. This raised speculation that he would be removed.

His death will likely strengthen Trong’s – and his faction’s – position. Quang, 62, was a potential successor to the 74-year-old party chief. Though he had passed the retirement age, Trong managed to extend his tenure at the Communist Party of Vietnam’s national congress in 2016.

It’s now speculated that Trong may also assume the presidency or somebody close to him, such as Tran Quoc Vuong, executive secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s secretariat, who made a trip to China and was received by Xi Jinping last month, will be appointed to the role.

In either case, Trong, who has already become the most powerful party leader in decades, will now have a bigger say in Vietnam’s key personnel decisions and its overall direction over the next two years or even beyond.

This may concern some of Vietnam’s main partners, such as the US and Japan, as well as many Vietnamese, because Trong is seen as ideologically conservative and pro-China.

But Quang’s death and the not-so-positive reaction to it may make Vietnamese leaders realize that while they are important, power and politics are not the most important things in life. What really matters is not the position they hold but what they can do for the country and the people.

Quang is not very fondly remembered, notably among intellectuals, rights activists and pro-democracy advocates, partly because the late president, who rose from the powerful ministry responsible for intelligence gathering and thwarting domestic and foreign threats to the one-party regime, had a reputation as a hardliner with little tolerance for dissent.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.