China and the World

Congress meets

Can Beijing take comfort from Hanoi reshuffle?

Vietnam's Communist Party Chief Trong speaks at a news conference after the Closing Ceremony of the 12th National Congress of Vietnam Communist Party in Hanoi, Vietnam

Trong on top

Vietnam’s five-yearly National Congress ran from January 21 to 28. Like China’s own it decides the policy direction of the nation for the next five years, and makes all the key appointments, or dismissals. Beijing watched closely, and also moved an oil rig into contested waters a few days before the event began. As WiC has earlier noted, when China did a similar thing in 2014 the issue persisted long enough for it to become the unspoken focus of Xi Jinping’s November 2015 Vietnam visit.

And the end result of this year’s Congress? Well, some analysts think with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung forced out after his second term and not becoming General Secretary, relations with Beijing may finally have been ‘reset’.

The top position in the troika stays with Nguyen Phu Trong, a 71-year-old often called a “hardliner”, who will remain in office two more years until consensus can be reached on a suitable replacement. Dung was replaced by Nguyen Xuan Phuc. The Politburo has been expanded, and a number of members are from the police and security services, including the president.

Whilst dividing the Party into pro-US and pro-China camps is reductive, most analysts see this as something of a low-key win for Beijing-Hanoi relations as Vietnam’s conservatives tend to favour their ideologically-similar neighbour over America.

Trong is known for his preference for Beijing over Washington. When he was installed in office in 2011, replacing the powerful and respected Nong Duc Manh, he seemed a safe and traditional choice and a man who saw the value in a strong relationship with nearby China. Beijing quite obviously knew this, and was thus rattled by his unprecedented visit to the White House last year.

Trong has, however, committed to continuing economic reforms. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was driven forward under Dung but also by the increasingly important Central Committee, which decides Politburo positions. Some Western-style economic reforms will be inevitable, something Beijing understands. Breaking free from the trade imbalance with China has been a Vietnamese goal for years.

“The so-called pro-Beijing leaders will come to rule the country, and I think that will be a good sign, from a Chinese perspective,” Cheng Xiaohe, a professor of international relations at China’s Renmin University told Voice of America.

Professor Zhang Baohui of Lingnan University in Hong Kong told WiC that, “Chinese foreign policy experts do hope that Nguyen Phu Trong will serve another term. But some have cautioned that Vietnam’s relations with China are shaped by its own national interests and so whoever becomes the next general secretary would not make a big difference.”

Sun Yun, a senior researcher and East Asia expert at think tank Stimson, concurred, telling WiC that Beijing had been watching the outcome closely as the transition will have an obvious effect on bilateral relations. She added that the speculation over the pro-China Trong and pro-US Dung “had quietened down significantly” and that Beijing knows “Nguyen Phu Trong is at least more pragmatic and ‘respects’ the geopolitics”.

“Beijing believes that Vietnam sees itself as having two challenges: territorial disputes with China and ideological disagreements with the US. Beijing also knows that Vietnamese leaders have to work with both and be wary about both,” wrote Sun.

Obama will visit Hanoi this year, reciprocating General Secretary Trong’s Washington trip last year. Similar to Xi’s visit, it’s likely a raft of agreements will be signed. But with Trong now essentially occupying a placeholder position, any formal push for strategic cooperation will slow.

Indeed, the new men from the security forces and police in the Politburo may even seek to dampen relations with the US; while alleged human rights abuses remain a barrier to closer cooperation with Washington.

China knows that with a consensus-driven government no longer beholden to the one-man Dung show, it may have fewer short-term problems in Hanoi. Unless someone moves another oil rig.

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