Leaders fall in Vietnam, but don’t expect a foreign policy shift
9 Apr 2024|

In discussing Vietnamese politics, the commentariat falls back on the word opaque. This usually means that it does not know what is happening. 

The term is resurfacing in the wake of the resignation on 19 March of Vietnam’s president, Vo Van Thuong. 

Thuong was fired for alleged violations and shortcomings that had left a bad mark on the reputation of the Communist party. 

Thuong’sshortcomings need to be seen in the context of the long-running anti-corruption campaign spearheaded by the party’s secretary-general, Nguyen Phu Trong. Trong is head of the politburo and numberone in the Vietnamese system. 

Thuong’s downfall would itself be a story. But his predecessor as president, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, formerly a successful prime minister, has also been compelled to resign. 

At that time there was inevitably speculation about the reason for the purge. One view was that it was indeed about corruption. Another was that many of those penalised were victims of factional fightingwith Trong pushing out his rivals. 

However, Vietnam’s leadership issues probably derive both from genuine corruption matters and from factional fighting. The two are not mutually exclusive. 

Corruption is a massive problem in Vietnam. It makes political sense to try to deal with it. The reasons given for the exit of top leaders are plausible. 

But no political systems, including communist ones, are free from factional fighting. A difference is that factions in the United States, Britain or Australia do much of their fighting in the open; the Vietnamese do it all in secret. 

There has also been a view that there are divisions in Hanoi between those who lean towards China and those who back Vietnam’s opening to the rest of the world.  

Those associated more with the party are sometimes portrayed as closer to China, while those associated with government can be seen to tilt more towards the West. 

Again, such differences would not be surprising. Outlooks do vary. The Vietnamese are nervous about China. Defence ties with the West help bolster the country’s security. Its economic growth will continue to depend on the West and major regional economies. But it does not want to provoke China. 

Still, differences of approach are not stark divisions. In the end, Vietnamese leaders tend to agree on foreign policy decisions and stick with them. If one tenet is central to their world view, it is the importance of balance. 

The country’s system tends to grade relationships by tier. In recent months it has raised the level of its relationships with the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia to the highest tier of comprehensive strategic partnership. This is a level previously accorded to only China, Russia and India, with which Vietnam has had longstanding close relationships (albeit a fractious one with China). 

These diplomatic steps are closely tied to economic and technological aspirations. But lest anyone doubt Vietnam’s adherence to balance, President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Vietnam amid a flurry of relationship upgrades with the United States, Japan and Australia. 

So, what’s next?  

Vietnam’s leadership tussles are not likely to disappear before the election of a new central committee and politburo in 2026. But Trong’s successor will not be a strongman like Xi. The tradition of collective leadership is too well established. 

The recent infighting looks bad and affects foreign economic confidence. The very fact of the longstanding anti-corruption campaignintended to safeguard party health and popularity, also makes both officialdom and the business community jumpy. 

This nervousness in turn jams up the decision-making process needed for a freer flow of domestic and foreign investment. 

And we should not make the mistake of thinking that the government is communist-lite. It is a serious Marxist Leninist state. Its bureaucracy is sclerotic and its security apparatus is rough. 

But Vietnam is now a country of 100 million people. Analysts do not doubt its economic fundamentals. According to the International Monetary Fund, Vietnam’s percapita gross domestic product, whether measured in nominal terms or adjusted for purchasing power, is above the Philippines’ and not far below Indonesia’s. 

If Vietnam can push ahead with a major economic reform program as it did with the groundbreaking Doi Moi (literally, Restoration) program in the late eighties, its economic prospects could be good. We should deal with it accordingly. 

There is little reason to expect any of the recent leadership developments to greatly affect Vietnam’s foreign policy. Factionalism has not had a major impact on external policy in recent years and the Vietnamese will continue to adhere to the concept of balance. The West cannot arrange a tilt towards itself by Vietnam nor one away from China. Vietnam’s leaders simply will not do this.  

In the end, it is in the Western interest to deal with the Vietnamese as they are, not as we might like them to be.