Vietnam Party Congress Meets to Choose Leaders, Set Policy Direction

The Vietnam Communist Party launched its 13th congress on January 25, a crucial meeting held every five years to choose the country’s top leaders and set its major policy course. Nearly 1,600 delegates will seek to set a direction to boost economic growth and navigate the nation’s greatest foreign policy challenge: increasing competition between the world’s two superpowers, China and the United States. 

Q1: What issues will the party congress address?

A1: The biggest issue is leadership succession, which has preoccupied the upper echelons of the party for much of the past year. First the Central Committee, a body of about 200 members responsible for implementing decisions taken by the party congress, must be selected. That committee will then elect the Politburo, the most powerful decisionmaking body in the party, from a pre-approved list of candidates. The last Politburo consisted of 19 members. The new one will propose candidates for the top four leadership positions: party general secretary, prime minister, state president, and chair of the country’s legislature, called the National Assembly. The newly-elected Central Committee will then vote on these nominations. Finally, the new Politburo will propose a list of government ministers which will need to be confirmed by the National Assembly after legislative elections later this year.   

Q2: Who are likely to be Vietnam’s new leaders?

A2: The political process in Vietnam is generally opaque. But following recent Central Committee meetings, it is widely understood that incumbent general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, 76, will stay on as party chief for a third term. That would make him Vietnam’s longest serving party leader. First elected in 2011, Trong would normally be ineligible because party rules mandate a two-term limit and an age ceiling of 65 years old. It appears, however, that the Central Committee has decided to grant Trong a waiver on both counts. Those must still be approved by the full party congress. And anything can happen. But the delegates are widely expected to grant Trong his waivers.

Other senior party officials considered throwing their hats in the ring for the top job. Until the recent Central Committee hearings, most assumed Trong would retire given his age and fragile health—he is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2019. That left two leading contenders. One was 67-year-old Tran Quoc Vuong, a Politburo member and head of the party Central Inspection Committee who is seen as close to Trong. But he reportedly faced resistance within the party. The other reported was 66-year-old Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who is credited with leading Vietnam’s booming economic growth in recent years. Phuc has also overseen the country’s impressive campaign to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic.

Phuc failed to garner the necessary support of Trong or other political factions. But the Central Committee did grant him a waiver to the normal age limit of 65, indicating he is likely to remain in the leadership. Assuming the congress approves his waiver, Phuc is now widely expected to be elected president. Trong has been serving in that role, along with his normal job as general secretary, since 2018 when the previous president died. As head of state, the presidency would give Phuc more opportunities to represent Vietnam on the world stage. But in most other ways, it is less powerful than his current position as prime minister.

Since the recent Central Committee meetings, Phuc’s most likely successor as prime minister seems to be Pham Minh Chinh, 62. He currently heads the party’s Commission on Personnel and Organization but does not have the depth of economic expertise Phuc and his predecessor Nguyen Tan Dung had. The 63-year-old Vuong Dinh Hue is expected to round out the leadership as chair of the National Assembly. Hue is the current party chief of Hanoi and a former deputy prime minister.

Q3: What does this mean for party?

A3: If approved, this slate of leaders would be norm-busting in several ways. All four are from northern and central Vietnam. In the past, a southerner has usually held at least one of the top posts as a gesture to national unity. And the top contenders are all men, disappointing those who assumed that the party would maintain female representation in the leadership since the outgoing National Assembly chair is a woman. It would also be an exceptionally old cohort. Trong and Phuc are both over the age limit, breaking an unspoken rule that the party should not grant more than one waiver per transition. And Chinh and Hue will both reach the limit before the next party congress. The party will have to grant more waivers or replace the whole lot in five years.

This continues an uncomfortable trend for the party of fractious leadership transitions and seemingly necessary exceptions to longstanding norms. In 2016, Trong was widely expected to step down as general secretary and be replaced by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. Instead, he received his first waiver to the age limit and successfully secured reappointment in the most divisive party congress in memory. Dung, hailed in many quarters as pro-business and supportive of reform, was also corrupt. After ousting him, Trong launched a popular anti-corruption campaign to rid the party and government of Dung’s influence. Over the past five years, that effort has snared scores of officials, including a Politburo member, cabinet ministers, bankers, and leaders of state-owned PetroVietnam. But it has also been paired with a campaign to reimpose party discipline and crack down on dissent.

Trong’s efforts have tamped down corruption but not factionalism. Intra-party rivalries forced another exception to the rules when President Tran Dai Quang died in 2018. No consensus could be reached on a replacement, so the party took the unprecedented step of letting Trong serve in both roles, effectively kicking the can to the next congress. Instead of a return to normal order, the jockeying for power ahead of this party congress seems to have gone down almost to the wire. And even if it proves less divisive than the 2016 congress, it will only be because party norms were again bent in the name of necessity.

Factional rivalries show no signs of abating. Exceptions are becoming the new rule. Trong staying on, at least for a while, is likely a compromise to keep the intra-party peace, though for how long and under what conditions will remain unknowable from the outside.

Q4: How will the party congress affect policy?

A4: The party congress will review the economic and foreign policies of the last decade and make adjustments—but likely not major changes—for the next five-year period. Its overarching goal remains for Vietnam to become a high-income nation by 2045. The country’s economic growth has averaged 6 percent during the past five years and expanded just under 3 percent in 2020 despite the coronavirus pandemic. The government has had stunning success in mitigating both the public health and economic effects of the crisis.

The new Vietnamese leadership will look to work with the Biden administration to deepen economic cooperation and security ties, though at a modest pace. As trade tensions between China and the United States increased under former president Donald Trump, some companies diverted sourcing from China to Vietnam, causing the nation’s trade surplus with the United States to soar. This led the Trump administration last year to label Vietnam a currency manipulator and open an investigation into purported unfair trade practices. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative announced in early January that it would not impose retaliatory tariffs. Now Hanoi will look to the Biden administration to reduce trade tensions in pursuit of a more coherent regional economic strategy.

Both countries share the conclusion that China is an increasing strategic threat. Responding to Beijing’s provocations in the contested South China Sea is a perennial challenge for Hanoi. And those provocations have only grown as China’s artificial island bases and expanding coastguard capabilities led to increasing harassment of Vietnamese energy exploration and other offshore activities. Vietnam will continue to seek closer ties with the United States to increase its strategic space vis-à-vis Beijing. But that will be tempered by the economic realities of its relationship with China. Its northern neighbor remains the largest source of inputs and equipment for Vietnam’s export-driven economy. The new leadership in Hanoi will pursue effective security cooperation with Washington anyway, but neither as quickly nor as extensively as the U.S. administration might hope.

Gregory B. Poling is senior fellow for Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Murray Hiebert is a senior associate with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative
Murray Hiebert
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program