Vietnam communist party chief Nguyen Phu Trong takes oath as country's president at the National Assembly hall in Hanoi on October 23, 2018. - Vietnam lawmakers on October 23, 2018 elected as president communist party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, the only candidate on the ballot, making him the most powerful man in the country where consensus leadership has traditionally kept strongman rule in check. (Photo by - / AFP)

Xi Jinping has long been dubbed as China’s CoE or “Chairman of Everything.” In some respects, this can now be said of Nguyen Phu Trong, Xi’s Vietnamese communist counterpart. Even so, Trong’s influence in Vietnam won’t be as overriding and long-lasting as Xi’s in China.

Trong, who has been general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) since 2011, officially became Vietnam’s president following a rubber-stamp vote and an orchestrated swearing-in ceremony at the National Assembly, the one-party state’s parliament, on October 23.

The 74-year old, the only candidate on the ballot to succeed Tran Dai Quang, who died last month after a serious illness, received an overwhelming vote (99.79%) from 477 lawmakers with only one (perhaps himself) objecting. He almost matched Xi, who was unanimously elected Chinese president in March this year

In myriad ways, Trong, the first Vietnamese leader to hold the two top posts since founding president and revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, is now Vietnam’s Xi Jinping.

Though the role of president in the Southeast Asian nation is largely ceremonial, it gives him considerable powers, both in theory and practice. Under Vietnam’s constitution, he is the head of state and represents the country of 93 million people both in domestic and foreign affairs.

Among other duties and powers, he promulgates the constitution, laws and ordinances, and as such, he chairs the central steering committee for judicial reform. He is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the ex officio chair of the Council for National Defense and Security. That’s why the presidency is seen as the second highest office after party chief – or at least one of the so-called “four pillars” of Vietnam’s power and politics – the other two being prime minister and parliament chairperson.

Like Xi, Trong is now head of the party, state and army. What’s more, like the former, the Marxist ideologue is the unrivaled leader in Vietnam as nobody – or even any faction – in the all-powerful Politburo can match him in terms of seniority, experience and, indeed, power. He became a Politburo member in 1997, while other remaining members joined this top decision-making body in either 2011, 2013 or 2016.

This raises concerns in some quarters that the country may go back to the strongman rule it experienced under Le Duan, who ruled with absolute power from 1960 until his death in 1986.

In fact, to avoid such a one-man rule, the CPV opted for a consensus leadership at its 6th National Congress in 1986, when the party also initiated the Doi Moi (renovation) policy, consequently transforming the country.

Ever since, the collective leadership has been the regime’s core modus operandi, with the party chief being primus inter pares. Yet, when Nguyen Tan Dung was prime minister (from 2006 to 2016), especially during his second term, from 2011 to 2016, it was him, not the party head, that was first among equals. In those years, not only did Dung totally control the government he led but also had far-reaching influence over other state and party bodies, including the party’s 200-strong Central Committee.

Partly because he was overshadowed by Dung and partly because he wanted to eliminate the former’s individualist leadership style, during his first term as party chief, Trong tried, by various means, to sideline his rival. Though he suffered some significant, if not humiliating, defeats during those years, he successfully forced Dung to retire at the CPV’s 12th Congress in January 2016, while retaining his position, even though he had passed the retirement age and Dung was five years his junior.

Ironically, when Dung was so popular that many thought he could not only replace Trong at the 2016 congress but also get himself elected president after becoming party chief, Trong opposed the idea of unifying the two positions because, in his view, the merger would put too much power in one person’s hands that nobody could control.

Just like Xi, Trong is very concerned about the party’s survival and legitimacy and seeks to clean the corrupt regime by launching a huge anti-graft fight. Like his Chinese comrade’s aggressive campaign against corruption, his was seen as partly aimed at attacking and eliminating political foes.

However, Trong’s power consolidation doesn’t generate as much apprehension in Vietnam as Xi’s power grab did in China.

Xi amassed extraordinary power at the National Congress of the Communist Party of China – aka Xi Jinping’s congress – last October, making some call him “nothing less than Chairman of Everything, Everywhere and Everyone.” As the two-term limit was removed from the Chinese constitution and he was appointed as president with no term limit in March, he likely stays in power for decades, even for life.

It remains unclear, however, whether Trong will stay beyond the CPV’s 13th Congress, scheduled to take place in 2021. What’s also very unlikely, if not unthinkable, is that the regime’s former chief ideologue will develop his own ideology and get it enshrined in the party’s charter and the country’s constitution as Xi did with his “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”

Some in Vietnam even support the unification of the party chief and state president roles because the government, both national and local, is too large, too expensive and too ineffective due to too much overlapping and duplicating of function.

Also, as it is a collective, consensus-based leadership, the Vietnamese sometimes get frustrated because they don’t know exactly who is the principal person behind a certain policy or the country’s overall direction.

Trong has long been perceived as a dogmatic conservative, that leads the pro-China faction.

On October 21, the Chinese state-run Global Times ran an op-ed that said, Trong “will undertake more diplomatic activities as the country’s president.” The article, entitled “Will Vietnam toe US line on South China Sea?”, also commented about US Defense Secretary James Mattis’s recent Vietnam visit, which it said, “might aim at finding out the real diplomatic intentions of Hanoi [under Trong’s consolidated leadership vis-à-vis the maritime issue].”

It then asserted, “Vietnam is unwilling to submit to become a pawn of America” and gave a number of reasons for that. One is that Trong “prefers stable, pragmatic and China-friendly policies, so the US and other Western countries are worried about pro-China political moderates dominate Vietnam’s diplomacy.”

With little doubt, maintaining stability is Trong’s top priority. But whether he will pursue “China-friendly policies” or whether the “pro-China” faction will dictate Vietnam’s foreign policy remains unclear

With little doubt, maintaining stability is Trong’s top priority. But whether he will pursue “China-friendly policies” or whether the “pro-China” faction will dictate Vietnam’s foreign policy remains unclear. This is something that not just the US and other Western nations but the Vietnamese themselves certainly – and perhaps, nervously – wait to see in the months to come.

While the commentary in the Global Times is right to say “Vietnam is unwilling to submit to become a pawn of America” –  or any country, its wording is excessive, unnecessary and even insulting.

The US and Vietnam are (comprehensive) partners, that – as stressed in a Joint Vision Statement issued during Trong’s unprecedented trip to America in 2015 – respect “each other’s political systems, independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”

In his remarks after a meeting with the then-US President Barack Obama at the White House, Trong, the first CPV’s chief to have traveled to Washington, revealed that the two leaders “discussed and shared our views on the recent developments in the South China Sea, and also shared our concern about the recent activities that are not in accordance with international law that may complicate the situation.”

In a televised address to the Vietnamese people during his state visit a year later, Obama said, “Vietnam is an independent, sovereign nation, and no other nation can impose its will on you or decide your destiny.” Such remarks incited a raucous round of applause from the audience present, mostly young people.

In his remarks at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Da Nang and a joint press conference with (now deceased) president Tran Dai Quang in Hanoi last November, Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, was even more explicit, stating that the US is committed to “a free and open Indo-Pacific, where strong, independent nations respect each other’s sovereignty” and wants its “partners in the Indo-Pacific to be proud and self-reliant, not proxies or satellites.”

Though they didn’t mention China by name, both Obama and Trump implicitly but pointedly implied China, Vietnam’s giant neighbor with whom it has long been locked in territorial disputes over both the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. For this reason, their comments resonated very well with Vietnam’s leaders and people.

The Global Times’ op-ed isn’t wrong to say that Vietnam “wants to cozy up with the US to latch on to its activities in the South China Sea and oppose China building islands.”

Indeed, Beijing’s aggressiveness in both its claims and actions, including its island-building and military build-up activities in the disputed sea, has pushed Vietnam closer to the US in recent years as it aligns with the latter on the South China Sea issue.

In March, the USS Carl Vinson, made a five-day port call to Da Nang, becoming the first US aircraft carrier to have docked in Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975.

In their joint statements in recent years, including the 2017 one, the leaders of the two countries, “underscored the strategic importance to the international community of free and open access to the South China Sea” and “the need to respect freedom of navigation and over-flight, and other lawful uses of the sea.”

More importantly, they “reaffirmed their shared commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes.” China remains opposed to such a settlement because, in 2016, a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea tribunal invalidated many of Beijing’s contentious claims and actions in the area.

Vietnam also has strong economic interests in forging closer ties with the US and other Western or advanced countries and a key reason for this is so that it doesn’t rely too much on its giant northern neighbor politically and economically.

A robust trade deal between Vietnam and the European Union was stalled for a while due to the bloc’s concerns over Hanoi’s human rights record. But, on October 17, the European Commission approved it, paving the way for the signing and ratification of it in the months to come.

Trong is likely to travel to the US this year because Hanoi is seeking a trade deal with the latter, which was until last year its biggest export market.

While their leaders, such as Trong, may want to maintain a balanced relationship with both the US and China and are unlikely to take sides, the Vietnamese prefer the former to the latter. According to Pew Research Center’s surveys, in 2014, 76% of Vietnamese viewed the US positively. That increased to 86% in 2017. By comparison, only 10% of the Vietnamese public viewed China favorably last year.

Taken together, for all the political and ideological similarities between the two communist neighbors and between Trong and Xi, as well as his seemingly pro-China leaning, it is doubtful that under Trong’s enhanced leadership, Hanoi will adopt “China-friendly policies” that explicitly favor China over the US.

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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.

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